Bùi Quỳnh Hoa
Hà Nội is in the middle of summer with temperatures reaching above 40 degrees Celsius at times. The hot weather makes it hard to enjoy food, but for baby clams and some cold beer, I can make an exception.
Highlights of the amazing hến xúc bánh đa (stir-fried baby clams with sesame rice crackers) are tender baby clams and crispy bánh đa (Vietnamese sesame rice cracker) in central style. — Photo sunhouse.com.vn
A Vietnamese folk song about hometowns says:
Hến xào bánh tráng trứ danh
Ai ngang quê nhỏ mời vào cùng xơi
(Famous stir-fried baby clams with sesame rice crackers
Welcome anyone to small hometown and enjoy the dish)
Originated in central Việt Nam, hến xúc bánh đa (stir-fried baby clams with sesame rice crackers) is an authentic dish, an easy appetiser and popular beer accompaniment.
The highlights of the amazing dish are tender baby clams and crispy bánh đa (Vietnamese sesame rice cracker). The dish is a combination of stir-fried clams, tossed with a handful of dry onion and garlic cloves, lemongrass, ginger, chilli pepper, and rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), served with crunchy crackers. It’s very simple yet flavourful, and so easy to make.
Processing baby clams is a very important stage. We soak baby clams in water to remove all mud and dirt from them, then boil them to separate their shells and meat. Next, we throw out the shells, keep the meat, wash it many times until it's clean, and then drain it off.
To cook, first, we preheat the pan and then add oil. When the oil is simmering, we add minced dried onion and garlic cloves and cook until caramelised and fragrant. Then we add the clams, seasoning, fish sauce, sugar, and stir well. Next, we add minced ginger, lemongrass and chilli pepper, stir well until all are mixed and well-done, and the smell is pleasant. Taste before removing the pan from the heat. Then we add rau răm and mix well.
According to Phan Thị Tĩnh, 82, who has a lot of experience cooking traditional food, adding a handful of ginger to the dish help prevent stomachache.
“It is a traditional experience that not many know,” Tĩnh said.
“Along with that effect, ginger also creates a vibrant flavour for the dish.”
Each sesame rice cracker is microwaved for a minute until puffy, then broken into medium pieces and used as an edible spoon for the clams.
To serve, we transfer the clam mixture to a serving plate, décor with several Vietnamese coriander branches and flower-carved chillis.
Hến xúc bánh đa is a wonderful appetiser that offers variety in both taste and texture. It’s simple to make but offers a distinct and sophisticated flavour, and suits any occasion.
The best baby clams are caught along the La River in the central province of Hà Tĩnh. — Photo baotnvn.vn
Some of the best baby clams are caught along the La River in the central province of Hà Tĩnh. At Bến Hến Commune in Trường Sơn Village on the La River, most families have earned their living catching baby clams for more than 300 years.
Nguyễn Văn Tuyến, chairman of the Trường Sơn Village said Trường Sơn Village at present has about 200 households in the trade.
“Our villagers’ lives have improved considerably due to the trade for the last 10 years. Many have an average income of hundreds millions of đồng per year,” Tuyến said.
Cơm hến (steamed rice with baby clams) is no longer the preserve of poor people in central Việt Nam, but the speciality of Huế in Thừa Thiên-Huế Province. — Photo tapchisonghuong.com.vn
Another popular dish from baby clams is cơm hến (steamed rice with baby clams).
In the past, it was a dish for low-income earners and was mostly served by street vendors. Now it is no longer the preserve of poor people in central Việt Nam, but the speciality of Huế City in Thừa Thiên-Huế Province that both locals and tourists enjoy. It is now served in restaurants nationwide as well.
The dish brings sweet, buttery, salty, sour, bitter and extremely peppery-hot tastes all at once due to its recipe, including crunchy cold rice, baby clams, fried pork fat, roasted peanuts, chili pepper, banana flower, star fruit, green apple, mint herb, fermented shrimp sauce and the most indispensable sauce – clam broth. The most interesting thing is the special combination of cold rice and the hot clam broth.
The mixed fruits and vegetables create fresh, crispy and vibrant flavours that are bound to abate the hot of the summer, while the piping hot of the clam broth warms the heart in winter.
The birthplace of cơm hến is Cồn Hến, an island on the Hương (Perfume) River running through Huế City.
Baby clams are boiled to separate their shells and meat. — Photo baotnvn.vn
Nowadays, cơm hến is not only found in Huế but also in cities nationwide. It is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Talking about clams’ health benefits, Bùi Ngọc Minh, Director of the Construction Hospital in Hà Nội said that clams have a high nutritional value.
“Scientific surveys prove that fresh clams are high in many vitamins and minerals including selenium, manganese, vitamin C, B12, copper, phosphorus and riboflavin,” Minh said.
“Its high-quality protein helps build and repair muscles and tissue, make energy, and maintain nerve function,” he added.
Having many benefits for health, vibrant taste and especially at cheap price, dishes from baby clams are a good choice for locals and foreign tourists who want to explore Vietnamese cuisine. — VNS