Viet Nam News
Rice porridge is as much a staple in Việt Nam and several other Southeast Asian and Asian countries as steamed rice itself.
There is probably no Vietnamese citizen who has not been weaned on several types of porridge as the first food replacement after breast milk.
But this simple dish is also a specialty, also a gourmet affair; aficionados can speak at length on what makes this dish special, what their favourite kind of cháo is, and where it can be found at its best.
In this piece, we introduce three kinds of cháo: cháo trai (mother-of-pearl porridge), canh atiso hầm giò lợn (artichoke stewed with pig trotters) and cháo chay thập cẩm ( plain ‘miscellaneous’ porridge) from the country’s three regions.
For Hanoian Nguyễn Thị Liên, 67, pearl porridge is not only a delicious, nutritious dish that boosts the health of pregnant women and children, but also a medicine that helps treat several ailments
Liên said that although pearl porridge is available on several streets in the capital city, the tastiest she’s had is pearl porridge with fermented and salted eggplants cooked by her grandmother in the rural area of Trực Định in Nam Định Province.
She said her grandmother woke up very early in the morning to go to the market to buy about 1kg of live oysters to cook pearl porridge at home. She cleaned the oysters very carefully before boiling it. Then she cut the oyster into small pieces and fried them with dried onions and fish sauce.
“The smell made our mouths water,” said Liên, adding that her grandmother grinding rice to a powder and using water the oysters were boiled in too cook the porridge were two things she’d noticed.
“I don’t know what her secrets were, but her pearl porridge was much better kneaded and sticky, and it had a light brown colour compared to others. The aroma was the most unforgettable part,” Liên said.
She recalled that when she was 14, she went down with a high fever. “I could not eat anything for several days and my mother thought I might die until my grandmother cooked me a small bowl of pearl porridge.”
Herbalist Nguyễn Văn Viện of the Hà Nội Hospital of Traditional Medicine said pearl porridge was a very good dish to recover from illness, because it cools down the body heat.
The oyster’s meat is rich in protein, calcium, phosphor and vitamins. It is particularly rich in zinc. which has proved effective in treating benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), said Viện.
River oyster meat in combination with several traditional herbs can treat hypertension, hepatitis and night sweat that children suffer from, he said.
For instance, those with high cholesterol should have cháo trai with wood’s ears and fragrant mushrooms, he added.
A Chinese herbalist of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) has said that oyster meat helps improve eye sight and can treat many other ailments without side effects.
Artichoke and pig trotter porridge
Artichoke is a specialty of Việt Nam’s Central Highlands region, particularly Đà Lạt. During the reign of the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802-1945), the French had brought the plant to the region more than a hundred of years ago.
Culinery expert Lê Kim Chi of the Quán Ăn Ngon restaurant chain said the plant’s leaves can be used as a vegetable or herbal medicine. Stewing the leaves with pig’s trotters makes it very nutritious, particularly for pregnant women and weak children, she said.
The dish was listed among 50 top specialties of Việt Nam by the Asian Record in 2012.
Chi said a cook has to choose artichoke leaves when the plant is about to bloom or has just bloomed, because the leaves are soft, much more nutritious and fragrant.
“We should choose a fresh pig trotter and cut it into pieces and marinate them it with dried onions, salt, pepper, sugar and seasoning powder for an hour and then put it in the pot to stew until it becomes soft,” said Chi, adding that “during the process of stewing, we should remember to take out the froth and make it pure.
“Then we then put the artichoke leaves and carrot pieces as well as spices into the pot and boil it for 10 minutes before scooping it to a bowl, then cover the bowl with peppers, spring onions and cilantro.
“When enjoy it you will experience the sweet flavour of pig’s trotters, carrots and the particular, cool sweetness of the artichoke.”
Mixed vegetarian porridge
Master chef Phạm Tuấn Hải is highly impressed with the cháo chay thập cẩm, or mixed vegetable porridge, that is made in the south. This is a very good dish for everyone, not just vegetarians, he maintains.
Hải is a Hanoian, but resettled in HCM City in the 1990s after he got married. His mother-in-law often makes this porridge for breakfast, he said
“All my family members, although not vegetarians, like this porridge very much because of its purity. It is easy to digest. It helps us feel comfortable when we go to work,” said Hải.
He learned to cook the dish from his mother-in-law.
To make mixed vegetable porridge for four people, 0.25kg of dried lotus seeds, 0.2 kg of carrots and 0.4kg of fragrant mushrooms are used.
This porridge is very suitable for a region where it is hot all year round. In the south, every family cooks it to “cool down the heat.” — VNS