Ha Giang weekend markets serve up some unique flavors

 Weekend markets in northern mountainous provinces are well known as an ethnic minority cultural tradition. Their culinary aspect deserves particular attention, as Ha Giang Province attests.

The charcoal-grilled white pancake is a specialty at the weekend markets in Ha Giang. Sold by ethnic minority people, the homemade soft cake with a slightly sour taste uses fermented corn flour. It is typically served with thang co, a big hotpot traditionally made with the meat and offal of horses or buffaloes.

The Xoi ngu sac (Five-colored sticky rice) is red, yellow, blue, purple and white. Ha Giang residents use fruits, roots and leaves of plants to give this sticky rice its colorful look. Glutinous rice is soaked in water for 6-8 hours and divided into five parts. Apart from the original white color, the other parts are dyed with a natural food coloring agent and steamed until tender.

Cornmeal dumplings are another breakfast staple in Ha Giang. They are a kind of corn flour bread with a particular fragrance and a light sweet taste.

From mid-October onwards, the Ha Giang rock plateau blooms with buckwheat flowers, a season which has already become a major tourist attraction. Residents use these flowers to make a signature dish - triangle buckwheat cake – that is difficult to find elsewhere.

The buckwheat seeds are harvested, dried and crushed into fine powder. The power is mixed with water to make flat round cakes that are then steamed for about 10 minutes. The cakes bought at the markets can be taken home as a special gift.

Thang den is another signature dish made with glutinous rice flour in Ha Giang. It looks like banh troi, the cake with a sweet filling that is popular in Hanoi.

The thang den is made by mixing glutinous rice flour with sugar that are shaped into balls and steamed. They are had with a syrup made with sweetened coconut milk and ginger. A bowl of thang den is topped with peanuts and/or black sesame seeds.

Though the steamed rice roll, banh cuon, is a popular dish in the north of the country, the version in Ha Giang is quite different. It is filled with pork/egg and mushroom, topped with dried shallots and served with a bowl of delicious bone broth flavored with fresh coriander, chopped scallions and Vietnamese pork sausage.

In Ha Giang, where mornings are quite chilly, a bowl of hot broth with banh cuon makes for a great breakfast.

The rattan basket-shaped banh chung (glutinous rice cake) is another popular dish that has a Ha Giang twist. Unlike the well- known square version, the provincial version is shaped like rattan baskets used by Hmong women to carry rice and other things.

The cake has a green or black color depending on the type of rice. For the green cake, the rice is mixed with Galangal leaves. The black cakes are made with purple glutinous rice. The cake's stuffing has both lean and fat meat. These cakes are packed everyday by some families in Ha Giang, but have to be pre-ordered because they are made in limited quantities. Each cake costs VND17,000.

The main ingredient of a special porridge favored by the Hmong people in Ha Giang is the root of the monkshood aconite plant, known as au tau, which typically grows on Ha Giang’s highest mountain peak, Tay Con Linh. The process of cooking the porridge is very time-consuming, because the roots can be poisonous without being processed and cooked in the right manner.

After harvest, the roots are soaked in water for a night and then simmered on a fire for about four hours. They can then be turned into dough and mixed with glutinous rice and pork trotters.

The porridge is only sold at night and is served with fried minced pork, pepper, herbs and sour bamboo shoots.

The last four months of the lunar calendar is the time to harvest mint honey on Ha Giang’s rocky plateau. Mint honey is an incomparable specialty of ethnic minority communities in the province.

Along National Highway 4C in the districts of Quan Ba, Dong Van and Meo Vac, visitors can easily see beekeepers selling this special honey, which has a lemon yellow color and the aroma of mint.

The black chicken hotpot is a not-to-be-missed dish on a cold day in Ha Giang. It is normally had with cabbage, peas and other vegetables that make the hotpot sweeter.

Unlike ga ac, a kind of black chicken in the Mekong Delta, the Hmong variety is a rare breed found in the northwestern mountainous provinces of Son La, Lai Chau, Lao Cai and Bac Kan. It is a favorite of the Hmong people, who believe that it helps enhance human vitality, including libido, and is good medicine for heart disease.

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