Viet Nam News
By Hà Nguyễn
Anyone who has enjoyed canh lá lằng, a unique dish of Nghệ An people, particularly locals in Quỳnh Lưu District, is struck by its bitter, acrid taste at first bite, before a sweet flavour hits your throat.
Located in the central region, Nghệ An Province is bless beautiful landscapes, immense sea beaches, hills, mountains and meandering rivers.
Thanked to this diverse terrain, the province has abundant produce, including the famous lá lằng (locally known as Vietnamese ginseng, a kind of medicinal herb).
The lằng tree is about 3-4 m high and grows on mountain slopes near creeks and along streams. Its serrated leaves are deep blue and its veins are dark red.
From the fourth to the seventh lunar months, the tree produces its tastiest leaves. During this time local people collect the leaves and dry them for use for the rest of the year, said 60-year-old local Nguyễn Thị Nguyệt.
“Housewives cook the leaves with pig’s insides, or use it to wrap grilled bream fish and dip it with chili-garlic fish sauce. But much more popular is that they cook lằng soup with tiny shrimps and tomatoes,” she said.
Fit for a king: A tray including lằng soup, a plate of dried lằng leaves and a bowl of cà pháo.
She recalled that the dish had been handed down from her ancestors, some hundreds of years ago.
“At that time most villagers were very poor, they had no money to buy food, so they often cooked the leaves with tomatoes as soup to eat with rice.”
Nguyệt said the soup is tastiest when eaten it with white rice, cà pháo muối (salted eggplants) and braised sea fish like bream. The light bitterness mixed with the sour flavor of salted cà pháo and salty fish helps create a very tasty dish.
“While enjoying the soup, the dinner is if all aromatic flavours of forests, mountains and sea were mixed together and that flavour remains on your tongue for long,” she said.
The soup is a popular dish for Vietnamese inside and outside the country.
Overseas Vietnamese Phạm Hồng Bàng in Ukraine’s Kiev, who comes from Quỳnh Lưu District, said lá lằng soup is well-known across the world.
“At any location in the globe with Nghệ (shorten name of Nghệ An) people, that location has lá lằng.”
“Although we live in Kiev, my family is still a centre of the leaves that we receive from our village in Nghệ An and then deliver to friends in Europe, America and Africa. An overseas Vietnamese in any place who receives a dried package of lá lằng often gives a bit to each of family his community to enjoy it and also to reduce their homesickness too,” Bàng said.
Salty treat: A tasty and delicious lằng soup to be eaten with cà pháo (salted eggplants).
He said though his family has settled in Kiev for more than 30 years, he has had to go without the soup.
“Thanked to lằng soup, I still feel closely connected to my native Quỳnh Đôi Village (of Quỳnh Lưu District) where I was born and have enjoyed the soup through my life,” said Bàng’s mother.
Bàng said apart from cooking soup, the leaf is still used as medical properties to deal with summer heat, stimulating good digestion.
“We all consider the leaf our Vietnamese specialty,” he said.
Nghệ An herbalist Hồ Văn Huấn told Việt Nam News that lằng trees are being widely planted in local gardens.
People in Quỳnh Lưu’s Quỳnh Đôi Village use 100g of lằng leaves, which are already cut into threads, to boil with a litre of water to drink it year round.
“It helps to cool down heat from inside the body so most people here are healthy compared with people in other places,” Huấn said, adding that locals in the district’s Quỳnh Thắng Village use the leaf as a medicine to deal with itching, heat, broken bones and burns.
The leaves, which have featured in poems, song and the memories of Nghệ people living far from home, are a key part of local life and need to be preserved. — VNS