Rice and chicken: fun, fired up and flavourful

Update: March, 28/2017 - 10:39
Blended flavors: Before being grilled, the chicken is soaked in salt, herbs as well as ground mắc khén grain (a type of pepper), chili and lemongrass. —VNA/VNS Photo Hương Viên
Viet Nam News

Hồng Vân

Rice is not only the staple of Vietnamese diets, but also the major ingredient in many signature dishes.

Besides the better known ubiquitous stir fried rice, the chicken rice of Hội An town and the rice cooked with coconut typical of the south, cơm lam is a feature of traditional festivals of several ethnic groups. These include the Tày, Dao, Mường, Nùng, Thái in some northern mountain provinces like Cao Bằng, Sơn La, Yên Bái, Lào Cai and Hòa Bình, as well as in the Central Highlands provinces. 

There is no official document indicating the origin of this dish. But based on its name, it is said to have originated in the Thái ethnic community of Việt Nam. In the Thái language, lam means "grill", indicating the cooking method. while lam in the Việt language means "green blue", a reference to the colour of the bamboo tube covering the dish.

It is said the ethnic people who lived in remote mountainous areas often went to the forest to gather wood for cooking or building houses. These long-distance trips could take several days, and the men would bring along rice, salt and a knife as basic necessities. As they also had to find a way of cooking without a pot people eventually discovered how to grill rice in a bamboo tube.

Nature’s pride: A cơm lam cooking contest held in Sơn Dương District in the northern province of Tuyên Quang. —VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuấn

Locals would use young bamboo tubes, cutting out one side in which to place the sticky rice and add salt and water. The tubes are then rolled evenly in the fire. Before eating, people would peel off the green cover, which turned black after being grilled. By the smell from the rice tube or the color of the bamboo, the "cooks" would know whether the rice was ready to be served.

The bamboo tubes must be new and fresh so that when rice is cooked, the aroma of bamboo is well absorbed into rice grains. Rice bamboo can be cut into smaller tubes. The texture of rice is smooth, adequately sticky. Taking a bite of rice, diners also feel the taste of fresh bamboo engrained in rice.

This cooking method preserved the nutrients and aroma of sticky rice as the two sides of the tube were closed during the cooking process. Nowadays, ethnic people have developed dozens of variations of cơm lam, in which peanuts or bamboo shoots are added to the sticky rice.

Preserving nutrients: A local of Hòa Bình province puts sticky rice into a bamboo tube. —VNS Photo Trương Vị

Cơm lam is considered a healthy dish especially for pregnant and breastfeeding women. It is believed healthier for the mother’s milk than rice cooked in metal cookers.

Cơm lam can be served with grilled chicken or pork, yet some prefer it with muối vừng (minced roasted peanuts with ground sesame and salt) only.

Though the dish does not include meat, it provides a sufficient amount of glucid, lipid and protid with high nutritional value. Cơm lam can be used within seven days of preparation without spoiling. In  wartime, ethnic people would offer this useful dish to soldiers.

Good for pregnant women: Locals in Hòa Bình Province prepare bamboo tubes for cơm lam cooking. —VNS Photo Trương Vị

Grilled chicken

Besides cơm lam, ethnic people in some northern areas of Việt Nam also make other lam (grilled) dishes, including grilled fish, birds and vegetables.

Chicken raised in mountain areas are often known as "hill chicken" (free-range chicken) and they taste better than chicken grown in cages. One should not miss the chicken dishes when visiting these areas.

Before being grilled, the whole chicken is soaked in salt, herbs as well as ground mắc khén grain (a type of pepper), chili and lemongrass. The seasonings and herbs placed inside the chicken are nicely blended with the flesh and boost its flavour. The aroma given off by the chicken cooked on the fire is mouthwatering.

Chicken is served with chẳm chéo, a typical dipping seasoning of the ethnic people, made of salt or fish sauce with ground lemongrass, lemon leaves, mắc khén , garlic, chili and herbs.

What makes chẳm chéo so special is the mắc khén, a fruit of the khén tree found in the forest. Khén fruit, with their strong pepper-like flavor, are dried, roasted and added to ethnic dishes. — VNS