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The taste of Hà Nội’s autumn

Update: September, 05/2017 - 09:00
Young, sticky: As soon as autumn comes, cốm (young sticky rice flakes) is sold abundantly in every corner of Hà Nội. — Photo
Viet Nam News

by Lương Thu Hương

Hà Nội’s autumn is also the season for cốm or young sticky rice flakes. Cốm can be eaten directly or enjoyed with bananas like a snack. It can also be mixed with other food ingredients to create a variety of tasty dishes, including chả cốm (Vietnamese cốm sausage) and cốm xào (browned green sticky rice).

Chả cốm

Unlike other kinds of chả like chả rươi (nereididae sandworm omelette), chả cá (charcoal grilled fish) and chả mực (fried patties with squid eggs) which are mainly composed of seafood ingredients and little fish, chả cốm is mainly made of cốm and has the subtle scent of new rice. Other ingredients for the dish include lean pork and pork paste.

Autumn sausage: Chả cốm (Vietnamese cốm sausage), a specialty of Hà Nội’s autumn. — Photo

According to Bùi Thị Vân, a housewife in Hà Nội who has made chả cốm for years, selecting the appropriate kind of cốm is important to the quality of the dish. If the cook chooses the wrong kind of cốm, the dish will become either too crushed or tough.

“Cốm is divided into two kinds: cốm in early autumn and cốm in the middle of autumn. The grain of the first kind is thin and soft, suitable for vegetarian dishes or being eaten with bananas. The second is a bit thicker and a little hard, suitable for cooking pudding and chả cốm,” Vân said.

“Cốm is sold abundantly on the streets when autumn comes, but the best comes from Vòng Village on the northwestern outskirts of Hà Nội.

“The meat to mix with cốm should be lean shoulder pork, which contains fat, so the taste will not become too dry or the dish downsized on being fried. The mixture will then be added with salt, seasoning and delicious fish sauce. It will be left to absorb all the spices for less than ten minutes.

“To preserve the original scent of cốm, no onion or garlic is added,” she said.

After that, the mixture is kneaded into small pieces and steamed from 15 to 20 minutes. Finally, chả cốm is fried until it becomes light brown on both sides. According to experienced cooks, instead of being placed on the plates, pieces of chả cốm should be arranged on lotus leaves to absorb the subtle scent of the lotus, the symbolic flower of Hà Nội’s autumn.

The dish is best when the skin is crisp, cốm inside soft and the fragrance of the grain mixed with lotus. It can be dipped into chilli or fish sauce to be eaten with cooked rice or rice noodle.

As the cốm season lasts only three months. Thge dish can be freezed in the refrigerator in large quantities for long-term use so chả cốm is available all year round. Especially, the sausage, together with bún đậu mắm tôm (fermented shrimp paste with fried tofu and rice vermicelli), has become one of Hà Nội’s most popular street foods.

The dish can be found abundantly in corners and alleys of the capital, but the most renowned stalls can be found in Phất Lộc Lane, Mã Mây or Ngõ Gạch Street.

Bún đậu mắm tôm is my favourite dish for lunch,” said Nguyễn Phương Thảo, a regular visitor to a stall in Ngõ Gạch Street. “To me, the dish cannot be complete without chả cốm. The sausage served in Ngõ Gạch Street is thick, delicious and not too greasy. ”

Health kick: Cốm xào (browned green sticky rice), a fantastic sweet dish made from cốm. — Photo

Cốm Xào

While chả cốm is a great choice for the main course, cốm xào is a fantastic idea for dessert or for tea break.

While not as popular as other dishes made from the grain, cốm xào enchants with the first bite. 

For a more sophisticated version, the dish can be supplemented with thinned copra, which will enhance the buttery taste and crunchy feeling.

According to Vân, cốm to cook cốm xào must be made in early autumn, soft and plastic. Its colour is not too green but turns a little bit yellow and especially, it must have the scent of the new sticky rice. Though the process of choosing cốm as its main ingredient is a bit strict, cooking the dish is not too difficult. Just needing to add sugar, thinned copra and coconut milk, the cook can get ready to make cốm xào.

“Similar to chả cốm, as soon as it is finished, cốm xào needs to be wrapped in lotus leaves to absorb the subtle scent of lotus,” Vân said.

Like fresh young sticky rice flakes, the dish can also be enjoyed like a snack. The eater cuts the dish into pieces and downs it with a hot cup of lotus tea.

“In the bit cold of early autumn, what is more pleasant than nibbling pieces of cốm xào in the lotus fragrance evaporated from hot tea mixed with the fragrance of sticky rice. That’s truly the taste of Hà Nội’s autumn,” Vân added. — VNS


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