My Mường ethnic friend, Bùi Thị Nga invited me to her home in Hòa Bình Province to enjoy dishes with mắc khén, a speciality spice originating from the northwestern region of Việt Nam.
In Mường language, the name of mắc khén is rather self-explanatory, describing the pungent, peppery smell of the spice. However, its fragrance compound is far more complex than pepper with an additional crisp, dry woodiness woven into green citruses. This makes mắc khén a truly versatile spice that can elevate any dish, said Nga.
Mắc khén, a specialty spice of the northwestern. Photo bachhoaxanh.com
“Mắc khén can be coupled with chicken, red meat, lamb or pork. But my favourite pairing is with fish and seafood dishes given the pepper’s zesty, citrus scent, which is excellent at reducing unpleasant odours and lending these ingredients a bright, uplifting note. Cookers only then need to add a little bit of salt, fish sauce or soy sauce to get the food ready to be cooked,” she said.
During my stay at her home, she cooked a number of dishes for me. They included cá rô phi nướng mắc khén (grilled tilapia with mắc khén), thịt lợn rừng xào mắc khén (wild boar fries with mắc khén), canh măng chua nấu mắc khén (sour bamboo shoots cooked with mắc khén) and several others.
Fish with mắc khén. Photo lamviet.net
She asked her husband to catch three tilapias (each weighing about 0.7-1kg) from a pond in front of her house.
“This fresh fish makes the dish tastier,” said Nga, adding that other ingredients include dried and fresh onions, chilli, citronella and herbs.
Nga told me to mince the ingredients and mix them with soy sauce, broth mix and fish sauce. Then, we put the herbs and citronella into the fish's belly for half an hour, before grilling it over wooden charcoal for another half an hour.
Roasted chicken with mắc khén is a regular of visitors and travellers to Hòa Bình Province. Photo backhoaxanh.com
The dish was so tasty with a special aromatic flavour from the mắc khén that it made my mouth water.
I’ve eaten grilled fish in other locations but fish soaked with mắc khén is quite different because the dish here is more fragrant and sweet.
“In addition, the dish is very good for the digestive system as it helps to prevent intestinal diseases such as diarrhoea and indigestion,” said Nga.
The next day, Nga told me that she would fry wild boar with mắc khén for me to try.
“The meat is available in my village’s market where hunters sell it every day,” she said.
Ethnic groups in Hòa Bình Province often treat their guests to grilled wild boar soaked in mắc khén. Photo foodshownw.com
Nga and I went to the market to buy a kilogram of wild boar, which is minced with mắc khén, garlic and some other ingredients.
The boar meat is cut into thin slices and soaked for 20 minutes.
Put two tablespoons of cooking oil in a pan over a big fire and fry the meat for 10 minutes. Then, add citronella, chili, broth mix and two teaspoons of fish sauce.
Nga told me to take out the fried boar meat onto a big plate and top it with mắc khén.
The dish is so delicious that I thought I could eat it all but Nga said eating it with rice is more enjoyable.
On the last day of my stay, Nga cooked me sour bamboo shoot soup with chicken and mắc khén. I was very impressed with the dish, as it blended the soft sourness of the bamboo with the sweetness of the chicken and fragrant pepper from mắc khén.
Nga presented me with a bottle of mắc khén seeds and gave me a recipe to cook these dishes at my home in Hà Nội.
She said all visitors and travellers to Hòa Bình Province should try these dishes. VNS