When settlers arrived in Vietnam’s southern Mekong Delta they found a wild and fertile land. Lanh Nguyen from Vietnam Heritage Travel reports on the development of their distinctive cuisine and culture
Some rivers in southern Vietnam are immense, their water clouded with red silt. Tiny canals run in all directions. Different topographies have given rise to all manner of boats and junks. Young girls row tiny sampans across the waves. Large wooden barges move slowly towards Cai Rang Floating Market
Long ago, settlers pushed down dark canals in the marshes of U Minh Ha and U Ming Thuong. Learning on their swords, they stood before the vast forests around Chau Doc and Long Xuyen, listening to the cries of tigers. In this wild land they struggled to survive, break new ground and till their fields.
In the North, and elaborate system of dykes protected the farmers’ fields. In the South, the famers faced countless challenges. They were so focus on practical matters that they had to eliminate many of the old customs and rituals. A new southern culture developed
In their new land, new cooking techniques evolved. People would catch a fish, cover it in river clay and grill it over burning straw. People’s lives revolved around the rivers.
A Ca Rang, a type of rustic terra cotta oven used to grill food – was found on every boat. The name of Ca Rang comes from the Khmer language. Even today, the sight of a Ca Rang reminds us of the settlers who explored and tamed this wild region three centuries ago.
As they drifted with the current, huddled against the northeast wind and sat in their canoes waiting for low tide, the early settles ‘ thoughts would turn to the comfort of their ca rang. The nights were long and lonely. Mosquitoes buzzed. Their rice jars were often empty. To ward off hunger, the settles created Mam Kho Quet – a dish of leftovers and fish sauce cooked over a low fire. Eaten with cold rice and herb, this dish is simple but tasty. Little crabs or Lim Lim leaves might be added or fish and shrimp. When the tide is high, people in An Giang joyfully greet the Ca Linh, a type of tiny fish that swim down from Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia. When the high tides flood the land around Dong Thap, farm work ceases. The famers hunt for rats and snakes fleeing towards higher ground.
Living on the river, houses must be airy enough to let the wind pass in and out easily. The roofs are made of Nipa Leaves. Visitors are greeted with glasses of wine and some dried mullet fish, which has been grilled over cajuput branches. The people don’t think about the distance pass or worry about the future. The southern mentality seems more relaxed and intimate than further North. The people are frank but friendly.
Thanks to the weather of shrimp and fish, the people in the delta have created many dried and salted dishes. Guests from city are often left speechless when surveying the bounty of herbs and vegetable arranged beside a southern hot pot. There are dozens of types of vegetables in shades of yellow, red and white. Water hyacinth is eaten. China tree leaf salad with dried fish is delicious with some dry rice wine.
So long as there is firewood for the Ca Rang, a delicious meal can be made. Little fish swim in the canals and tasty plants line the banks. When they meet, people on one boat may offer a few mangoes to those on another, then pass over some fresh – caught shrimp, then some wine. Over a casual meal, people soon become great friends. Despite countless changes, the lifestyle of the early southern setters endures in their beautiful region.
This article written by Lanh Nguyen from Vietnam Heritage Travel
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