Viet Nam News
by Lương Thu Hương
For the Dao Đỏ people in the northern province of Hà Giang or the Mường in the central province of Thanh Hóa, sâu tre (bamboo worm), once a staple, has become a rare treat.
Only elders in these two ethnic minority communities residing mostly in the northern and central provinces know how to collect the worm and make tasty dishes with it.
A few weeks ago, in a homestay arrangement in Hoàng Su Phì District, Hà Giang Province, we enjoyed the luck of being served a special Dao Đỏ meal.
When the meal was served, besides the traditional dishes like steamed cassava pie and fried mountain snail, there was a plate of stir-fried sâu tre and a bowl of sâu tre soup.
Once it is cooked, sâu tre takes on a golden colour. The worm looked like a chrysalis, somewhat smaller. Despite the eye-catching decoration and colour, we were still afraid of tasting the dish.
Triệu Mùi Mủi, our 43-year-old host, laughed and said: “Try it out, then you will find it delicious. Many people have hesitated like you, but all of them then became addicted to the dish. It is really a nice one.”
With such encouragement, we had to go for it.
And she was right. We fell for it immediately. It was succulent, juicy, and the herbs used had blended well with it.
Mủi told us that there are different ways to cook sâu tre. It could be deep fried, steamed or braised, but the most popular dish was sâu tre stir fry.
The worms are washed and cleaned carefully, seasoned with salt and set aside for 15 minutes. Fat (lard or oil) is heated in a pan, and shallots as well as the worms are added to it. After stir-frying for about three minutes, when the worms taken on a light golden colour, finely chopped lime leaves are added. A quick stir-fry, and the dish is served immediately.
The mild scent of the bamboo, the strong flavour of sâu tre and the light bitterness of lime leaves make for a special, tasty dish perfect to enjoy on cold and humid days.
Mủi told us that sâu tre was a special dish for mountainous communities. People began collecting them when they lived mostly of the land, and food became scarce.
As other food became more easily available in the market, the sâu tre was no longer a must. Young people soon forgot how to collect and cook it. Also, sâu tre requires a lot of ingridients, additives, and several steps are involved, from collecting it to preparing it and cooking it. It can even take more than a day to serve a sâu tre dish, Mủi said.
“So today we just cook sâu tre to serve guests. It is difficult to collect, so even when someone is willing to order and pay in advance, we have to say no.”
Finding sâu tre
According to Mủi, the bamboo worm season normally lasts from September till the end of October, during which the worms are the fattest and give birth the most. She said it used to be easy for people in the past. They could tell with just a glance which was the right bamboo to find the worms in.
“But for young people now, it depends on their luck.” she said.
To collect sâu tre, a knife and a basket are the tools required. People look for dry and almost dead bamboo grass, chop them down then empty the stalks to get the worms inside. On a lucky day, one can get 1 to 1.5 kg of sâu tre. The worm is white and 3.5 to 4cm long.
In Việt Nam, this special worm can be found in the northern mountainous provinces of Điện Biên, Lai Châu, Sơn La and Hà Giang or central provinces like Thanh Hóa and Thừa Thiên-Huế.
Even during the breeding season, it is not easy to get them, because not every bamboo section will carry them.
“However, the rarer the insect is, the higher its price on the market,” Mủi said.
During its season, prices for this mountain specialty can go be up to half a million đồng (US$23) per kilo, but supply still fails to met rising demand. People have to order about a week in advance to be served this dish.
Another factor that raises the price of bamboo worm is difficulties in transportating them.
“Delivering the bamboo worm alive is hard to do. And if they are not careful enough, the worms will die so the dishes will not be as tasty as expected,” said Lê Văn Thọ, a sâu tre wholesaler. “Therefore, as soon as I gather enough of them, I do not wait. I get them straight to the customer, so they are fresh and my loss is reduced.”
But for those who have taken to them, all the trouble taken, and the price, are worth it.
“I have to order bamboo worms in Thanh Hóa Province one week earlier,” said Nguyễn Hoàng Quân, who lives on Hoàng Hoa Thám Street in Hà Nội. And he sometimes waits for two hours at the bus terminal to collect the delivery.
“My very first time, I felt creepy on seeing the worms on the table, but I fell in love with their crispy, aromatic and greasy taste after my first attempt.
“After just one bite, and I wanted to have more and more, and have, unconsciously, become addicted to them.” — VNS