Eating like a mountain man

Northwest Vietnam has some of the country’s most striking vistas. The rugged terrain is home to jagged mountains, rich tropical forests, ethnic minorities, and an abundance of wildlife.
The region is also famous for the hearty, rustic cuisine of the people of the Northern Highlands. The unique, pungent flavors of the mountains are slowly finding their way to popular restaurants in cities. Today, the highlands’ take on roasted fish, com lam Tay Bac (Northwest rice cooked in bamboo tube) and ga den H’mong (H’mong black chicken) can be enjoyed in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi restaurants.

Roasted Highland carp

Carp abounds in the rivers and lakes of the northwestern highlands.

In the mountains, humongous bighead carp are often roasted in the traditional style. The fish is cleaned and rubbed with salt. The body is then stuffed with chopped garlic, onion, coriander and mac khen – the region’s trademark condiment.

Mac khen, also known as ‘jungle pepper,’ is a seed known for its naturally salty, piquant flavor. The seed has been used for centuries, particularly by Thai tribesmen as a natural alternative to salt.

Traditionally, the fish is speared with a skewer and roasted over hot coals to release its strong flavors combined with the herbs.

Com Lam Tay Bac - VietnamtravelblogCom lam Tay Bac

Com lam Tay Bac is sticky rice cooked in a bamboo tube.

The dish originated in the forests, when tribesmen had to make long journeys through the woods.

Even today, locals soak rice with a little glutinous rice, and stuff the mix into a cloth bag to take with them on long walks through the forest.

In the woods, they fill a small segment of bamboo with the soaked rice mix and cap the ends tightly with leaves. The tube is placed above fire to steam and imbue the glutinous rice with the gentle flavors and fragrance of bamboo.

Ga den H’mong

Ga den H’mong or “black H’mong chicken” is derived from a special sort of bird. The chicken, known as a “silkie” in the West thanks to its wispy white tufts of feathers, has been celebrated as a remarkable dining experience in kitchens across the world.

According to a 2007 New York Times article, it has even become something of a delicacy in the Big Apple.

The small, lean bird is traditionally stewed whole in medicinal leaves and comes out entirely black, from claws to beak. The bird’s tender meat is known for its rich, gamy flavor.

Its traditional preparation is known to imbue the bird with invigorating health properties.

An urban take on northwest flavors

With the rustic cuisine of the highlands coming to restaurants in HCMC and Hanoi, urban diners can enjoy the heartiest flavors of the mountains, and be transported to a different place altogether. The following restaurants feature authentic decorations and staff costumes, which give diners the feeling of being in an exotic locale.

For a genuine highlands experience, have your meals with ruou can (traditional mountain wine). The beverage is prepared by fermenting sticky rice or corn and a combination of medicinal herbs and roots in earthen jars. Ruou can is sipped through long slender straws of bamboo tubes.

** Discover the new mountainous flavors and  culture at the following restaurants:

Hoa Ban
101/45 Nguyen Huu Tho Street, Nha Be District, HCMC
Tel: (08) 6 299 1068

Khen La
17B Mai Thi Luu Street, District 1, HCMC
Tel: (08) 3 824 2432

Bac Ha
104/74 Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, Hanoi
Tel: (04) 2 240 9839