|Traditional: A co óng phù Cao Bằng seller is kneading her cakes.|
By Hà Nguyễn
When winter approaches, locals in the northern province of Cao Bằng often cook coóng phù cake (or phù noòng in Tày language) to offer to their ancestors, praying for the severe cold to end.
Like Sa Pa, in northwest, Cao Bằng has to suffer severe cold including hoarfrost that kills plants, animals and also the elderly.
The food is something like bánh trôi nước (floating cake made of bits of brown sugar wrapped in glutinous rice paste and cooked in boiling water) of the Kinh (majority) people in the lowland areas.
Tày elder Nông Thị Vui said for her ethnic group, the dish is not only fragrant from khẩu pét (a kind of special glutinous rice only planted in the province), sweet from sugar molasses and nutty from roasted peanuts and sesame, but smells hot from ginger, helping those who eat it feel healthy and much warmer during the cold winter.
|Bright colours: A tray of kneaded coóng phù ready for sale.|
“The cake came into being a hundred years ago from the original Tày ethnic group. It is so tasty that almost everyone living in the province, including the Kinh, know how to make the cake and are interested in eating it,” said Vui.
In the past my father was assigned to work in Cao Bằng and he brought our family along. Coóng phù was among many specialties that I would never forget as sometimes after class my classmates and I often rushed to a woman named Trần Thị Sáng to eat the cake.
It was so tasty and fragrant I thought I could eat two bowls at the same time, but I didn’t have enough money to pay.
Sometimes, Sáng’s shop was so crowded we had to help her to knead the dough into small balls and then add ground roasted peanuts mixed with roasted sesame. First it was rather difficult because it was often broken but after seeing Sáng I could knead it smoothly then put them in a tray.
“I often order glutinous rice from farmers in Cao Bằng’s Nguyên Bình District six months in advance to ensure the quality of my cake,” Sáng said.
|Hearty dish: Aromatic coóng phù cakes of Cao Bằng are popular in winter. — Photos baocaobang.vn|
One kilo of glutinous rice is mixed with 0.1kg of rice and soaked in water for 3-4 hours before grinding it to dough and then hanging the wet dough for two hours to reduce water before kneading.
I still remember the minutes I had to wait for Sáng to drop the balls into the pot of boiling water and ladle it out to put it in a bowl and then pour over molasses with fresh ginger.
Sáng said it should be eaten hot to enjoy the aromatic flavour as well as to warm up the body.
Sáng became the most popular seller of the dish in the province and her fame was passed down from generation to generation, local Nùng Thị Thắm said.
Unlike Sáng, many coóng phù sellers in the province nowadays use orange, green, violet and yellow colors from gấc (a special fruit grown in South East Asia, especially in Việt Nam), wormwood, and magenta leaves to make the colourful cakes more attractive, said Triệu Thị Vân in Cao Bằng’s Sông Hiến Ward.
|Famous treat: The cakes are cooked in boiling water.|
“These natural fruits and plants are very healthy and nutritious,” said Vân.
People in Cao Bằng make the cake to celebrate winter solstice which falls on December 21-22, to pray for good luck.
“During such a cold day, enjoying hot coóng phù with relatives around a warm fire is so great that someone who moves far from the province is sure to miss and crave the cake,” said Nông Văn Nguyên, originally from Cao Bằng.
Nguyên is right.
Cao Bằng native Dương Quang Phong, who resettled in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago, said his family missed the cakes so much, particularly when winter comes. "Although my mother cooks the food, its flavor is something different from the original one in the province.” — VNS