|Special gift: Cốm cake is one of the gifts grooms traditionally give to brides on their engagement day to mark the happiness and delight of the young couple and their relatives. - VNS Photo Trương Vị|
By Hồng Vân
Cốm young sticky rice flakes - one of Hà Nội’s culinary specialties - has long been close to Hanoians’ hearts. Like the city where it was born, cốm is elegant, fresh and simple. Cốm is added to other types of sweets for its flavour. Among them, bánh cốm, a sweet cake made of young sticky rice flakes and green beans, is a Vietnamese must-have for happy occasions, including weddings and Lunar New Year.
Cốm (Young sticky rice flakes)
As autumn approaches, gentle breezes replace the summer heat, the fragrance of milkwood pine flowers wafts over old streets, full moon lanterns color the city and the first cốm are made to indulge Hanoians, who are known as food connoisseurs.
"Taking a pinch of cốm and savoring its naturally sweet taste feels like we are absorbing the fragrance of the immense green paddy fields of our ancestors," Vũ Bằng wrote in "Hà Nội delicacies".
“Cốm is not only a Hanoian favourite. It also has an important place among Vietnamese foods as it is associated with Việt Nam’s rice-growing culture which has been maintained for centuries. Eating this dish gives us the fresh flavour and bucolic ambiance of the countryside,” said Phạm Tuấn Hải, a culinary expert and three-season Masterchef judge.
Dubbed by writer Thạch Lam ’a dear gift from young green sticky rice’, cốm was first made in Vòng village on the northwestern outskirts of Hà Nội.
Legend has it that one autumn a thousand years ago, when the rice was almost ripe and ready to harvest, storms caused huge damage to local rice crops. Vòng villagers went to their storm-torn paddy fields, picked the remaining green rice and brought it home to stir fry. The newly-invented dish helped villagers survive tough days. Locals had not expected the dish to taste so good. Ever since then, villagers have made cốm every autumn when the green rice is ready to harvest.
Cốm’s fame eventually went beyond the village. It became a much appreciated gift which people gave to relatives and acquaintances.
It was said that during the Nguyễn dynasty, Vòng villagers braved many challenges to offer cốm to kings in Huế Imperital City. Locals put cốm in a clay pot and kept it warm with a wood burning stove along the way to central Huế city. "Steam helped preserve the chewiness of cốm when it took days to reach the imperial city," Vũ Bằng wrote.
“Cốm is both popular and luxurious. It can be found in vendors’ baskets on Hà Nội streets or tastefully arranged on the tables of fine hotels,” said Tuấn Hải.
Cốm makers are hard-working early birds. For centuries, they woke up as early as 4am to pick green sticky rice jewelled with dewdrops.
“Much meticulousness and skillfulness are required in the process,” said Nguyễn Vinh Thảo, who has forty years of experience in making cốm and who is part of the fifth generation of her family to carry on the tradition.
"Villagers learned to make cốm when they were very young. By supporting the family business, they gradually adopted needed skills and secrets to continue the tradition from generation to generation," said Thảo.
“Authentic cốm must be flat, lime-green, chewy, sticky and smell pleasant like the scent of green rice,” said Đào Trung Hiếu, a member of the fourth generation of his family to make cốm in Vòng village.
Although rice is grown in all the northern, central and southern regions of Việt Nam, cốm is only made in the three villages of Vòng, Mễ Trì and Kim Lũ on the outskirts of Hà Nội.
Bánh cốm (Sweet cake made of young sticky rice and green beans)
In the old days, people waited until autumn every year to enjoy cốm since food preservation methods were not available.
A hundred years ago, a Hanoian woman came up with the idea of making bánh cốm, (a type of sweet cake made of cốm and green beans) so people could savour the taste of cốm all year round.
Shops on Hà Nội’s Hàng Than Street in the Old Quarter have a hundred-year tradition of making cốm cakes. Among them, Vĩnh Lộc shop offered such tasty cốm cakes that King Bảo Đại visited the shop in the early 20th century to praise the exquisite taste of their cakes.
Cốm cake is also one of the gifts which grooms traditionally give to brides on their engagement day.
To this day cốm and bánh cốm have many homegrown fans.
"Cốm cake marks the happiness and delight of the young couple and their relatives," wrote Thạch Lam in "Hà Nội: 36 streets and guilds".
"I still remember my grandma buying cốm and bánh cốm when I was small," said Nguyễn Phương Hoa, a Hanoian living in the US.
"I really miss the delightful fragrance of cốm. I think all Hanoians love this fresh, fragrant and tasty dish," said Hoa.
Chef Tuấn Hải is passionate about Hà Nội food, especially cốm. His forthcoming cookbook will introduce menus and recipes for new dishes with cốm. “People think of cốm when they talk about Hà Nội,” Hải said. –VNS
Cốm can be found at:
No 18, Alley 99, Xuân Thủy Street. Phone: 012345 013 12
No 8, Alley 50/20 Mễ Trì Road. Phone: 01646006896
No 32, Alley 59, Mễ Trì Road. Phone: 0985 537 050
Alley 59/77, Mễ Trì Road. Phone: 0976 839 974
2/1E Cao Thắng Street. Phone: (08) 3832 9899
84C Trần Quốc Toản Street. Phone: (08) 3820 9817
Bánh cốm can be found at:
§ Nguyên Ninh
11 Hàng Than Street. Phone: (04) 3828 3573
§ Bảo Minh
12 and 16B Hàng Than Street. Phone: (04) 3927 4114
§ An Ninh
49 Hàng Than Street. Phone: (04) 3828 1821
§ Nguyễn Ninh
65A Hàng Than Street. Phone: 0937 876 996
§ Đào Nguyên
387 Trường Chinh Street. Phone: (04) 38 995 162 - 0922 222 504
§ Bảo Hiên Rồng Vàng Bakery
167 Lý Tự Trọng Street, Bến Thành wards, District 1. Phone: (08) 3822 2499
§ Tiến Thành Bakery
854 Cách Mạng Tháng tám Street. Phone: (08) 3539 094 - (08) 3993 4671
§ Như Lan Bakery
50 Hàm Nghi Street, District 1. Phone: (08) 3821 4239
|Popular and luxurious: Cốm can be found in vendors’ baskets on Hà Nội streets or tastefully arranged on the tables of fine hotels. –VNS Photo Hồng Vân|
|Culinary legacy: Cốm is made in the three villages of Vòng, Mễ Trì and Kim Lũ on the outskirts of Hà Nội. –VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng|