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Hà Giang’s ‘poisonous’ porridge treats you inside out

Update: October, 10/2017 - 09:00
Toxic, medicinal: Ấu tẩu, scientifically known as Aconitum, is a root found in high mountainous areas. Residents of Ha Giang province use it ấu tẩu root and soak it in local wine. The mixture is used for massage or curing minor pain. It is also used to make a rice porridge unique to the province. – Photos
Viet Nam News

Hồng Vân

The northernmost province in the country is no longer a “remote area” in the tourism sense of the word.

Hà Giang is now known all over the world for its spectacular landscapes including golden terraced rice fields, limestone peaks and outcrops, valleys of flowers and the cultural diversity of its ethnic minority communities, who comprise almost 90 per cent of its population. 

With such a multi-cultural makeup, it is not surprising that Hà Giang’s cuisine reflects the diversity and many of the dishes found here are unique, and some of the have become well known, like thắng cố (simmered horse meat and offal), thắng dền (boiled glutinous rice dumplings stuffed with mung beans) and grilled algae.

But there is one dish which is very popular among locals and easy to find, but visitors, especially those making their debut in the province, find it intimidating because it is called “poisonous porridge.”

One of its main ingredients gives the dish a bitter taste, and people warn you that it can cause harm if not made well, but its popularity and ubiquitous presence in the city shows it is worth checking out.

The cháo ấu tẩu, is a rice porridge with pork leg, stir-friend minced pork, and the ấu tẩu root.

Locals in Hà Giang are experts in using expert ấu tẩu, they know how to eliminate the poison in the root and combine it with rice, making it a dish that is actually healthy, helping ease joint pain and aiding sleep.

Though I’d been to Ha Giang before, I had stayed mostly in the remote districts like Đồng Văn, the karst plateau park and Hoàng Su Phì, the land of terraced rice fields. It was only in latest trip last week that I had the chance to visit Ha Giang City and have ấu tẩu porridge for the first time.

“A trip to Ha Giangy is not complete without having a bowl of ấu tẩu porridge,” my local friend Lê Văn Ước.

Uniquely Ha Giang: Apart from dishes like thắng cố (simmered horse meat and offal), thắng dền (boiled glutinous rice dumplings), grilled algae, no visit to Ha Giang Province can be complete without trying a bowl of cháo ấu tẩu.

Strolling along the city’s streets in misty, cold weather, I realised how different it was from what I had expected. The street was quite busy at night, offering a broad range of street food, with ấu tẩu porridge stalls the most populous.

Trần Hưng Đạo Street has the highest number of ấu tẩu porridge eateries, and “among them, Hương’s is the best,” my friend said.

Nguyễn Thị Hương, a Hà Giang native, has been selling ấu tẩu porridge for years. She said the ấu tẩu tree grows mostly in the 2427m high Tây Côn Lĩnh, the highest peak in the province.

“The Mông and Dao people go to the peak to get the ấu tẩu root and soak it in wine. The mixture is used as a massage lotion or balm for curing minor pains,” she said.

“To use ấu tẩu as food, we have to be careful in processing it. Otherwise, it can poison diners,” Hương said, confirming what I’d heard earlier.

Ấu tẩu, which has the scientific name of Aconitum grows typically in high mountainous areas. Its root is hard as a rock, and thorny.

Ready to serve: Locals in Hà Giang are experts in using ấu tẩu. They know how to eliminate the poison in the root and combine it with rice, making a porridge that is tasty and healthy.

To make a big pan of ấu tẩu porridge, people have to work hard for almost a whole day.

The most difficult part is making the ấu tẩu safe.

The root is first cleaned and soaked in rice water (in which rice had been washed), for at least four hours or from early morning till noon. It is then taken out, cleaned again, and simmered in boiling hot water for another four hours. At this point, the root is safe and edible, and locals grind it for adding to the porridge, which itself is simmered with pork leg.

To make good porridge, locals use rice grown in hills. This rise is soaked in water from previous night till early morning so that the dish is soft and creamy.

Stir fried minced pork, pepper, scallion, perilla and chilli are added to the au tẩu porridge.  

While the ấu tẩu gives the porridge a bitter taste that might put off the first time diner, the creaminess of rice and the sweetness of pork bones reduce the bitterness and create a unique taste.

“Ấu tẩu porridge is served only in the evening because it is said to be good for sleeping,” Ước said.

“In the cold climate of a high mountainous area like Hà Giang, nothing can soothe you better than bowl of hot ấu tẩu porridge,” he added. — VNS


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