|Versatile herb: Là ngải (wormwood) is useful in cooking many dishes including bánh ngải. Photos baolangson.com
By Duy An
Bánh ngải (wormwood cake) is one of famous specialties of Lạng Sơn’s Tày ethnic group. This popular dish leaves an impression on any traveller visiting the province.
Like bánh dày (round cake) of the Kinh (majority) people in the plain, ngải cake is also round in shape. It contains rich cultural value and the spirit of the group, said Lạng Sơn elder Nông Thị Bảng.
Bảng said wormwood is a kind of wild vegetable now planted by farmers. It can be used to treat with many ailments such as muscle pains, abdominal pain, back pain, low blood circulation, upset stomach and fever.
“It is particularly healthy and nutritious for pregnant woman,” she said.
There are many tasty dishes cooked from wormwood. They include wormwood with eggs or chicken, hotpot and the cakes.
The cake’s ingredients include special glutinous rice (or khẩu pay in Tày language) which is fragrant and only planted in the province. It also has sesame and sugar cane locally known as đường phên that is often packed in a rectangle shape.
|Sweet green: Fragrant and tasty bánh ngải impress locals and travellers to Lạng Sơn Province.
Although these materials are available in the province, Bảng said making tasty ngải cake requires carefully chosen fresh wormwood, quality glutinous rice and light yellow phên sugar.
“When making the cake, Tày people often send all of their sentiments and wishes into the cake because it is to be used at important events such as worshiping ancestors during the Tết holiday or celebrating a new rice crop,” she said, noting that locals believed delicious ngải cakes would bring health and luck year round.
The most difficult thing about making the cake is ensuring the wormwood keeps its green colour without becoming bitter.
There are two ways to deal with wormwood: boil it in lime water or ash water.
“We often use the first way for its simplicity but several elderly people in my village use the second way by using bamboo ash water to make the cake more fragrant with an aromatic flavor,” Bảng said.
After boiling for an hour, the leaves should be carefully cleaned, cut into pieces, drained and stirred on a light flame to reduce their bitterness, she said.
The glutinous rice should be soaked in water for six to eight hours and drained before cooking to turn it into sticky rice.
“We have to choose a strong man to grind the mix of sticky rice and boiled wormwood pieces until the dough becomes smooth like plastic,” said Bảng. “This process is very hard and takes a long time.”
|Finished product: A bamboo tray of bánh ngải, which are offered to the Tày ethnic group’s ancestors.
The dough is kneaded into a small ball and then formed into a round cake which includes condensed ground roasted sesame mixed with yellow phên sugar. The cakes are steamed for five minutes and left to cool.
“A quality cake gets its fragrance from glutinous rice and wormwood,” Bảng said. “It has the sweet flavour of sugar, the light flavour of ngải leaves and the nutty flavour of roasted sesame.”
Bảng added that it is a very good food for vegetarians.
Hanoian Lương Thúy Hoài, who likes to visit Lạng Sơn during winter to enjoy the snow at Mẫu Sơn Mountain, said she is very fond of the cake.
“I can eat a dozen of such cakes instead of a meal without being satiated,” she said. “All the ingredients are from nature so we never have to be afraid they are unhealthy.”
Hoài said she often bought hundreds of cakes to deliver to relatives and friends as gifts. She also said she bought ingredients from Lạng Sơn to make the cake at home.
“We consider the cake our traditional symbol, handed down from generation to generation,” Bảng said. “That is why it has become an integral part of Tày anniversaries and death or wedding ceremonies.”
“A Tày girl should know how to make the cake well,” Bảng said, noting that most Tày girls were taught how to make the cake by their grandmothers or mothers since they were young. — VNS