After a morning’s trek with my seven year old son through the misty terraced rice fields that are home to the Hmong tribe, we are approached by a young man who calls himself Alex, or his helmet does, a member of this tribal community in Northern Vietnam. He is wearing non-traditional clothing for his day job – motorcycling tourists back to the main hill station of Sapa.
The month is January, a few weeks before Vietnam celebrates Tet, the festivities of the lunar New Year.
After I agree to take a ride from Alex we talk about life here in the village, and he tells me that their main livelihood is rice; rice feeds the village as well as provides the villagers with income (some of the women of the tribe also earn money by selling locally made crafts to tourists). He tells me that the whole year revolves around two events: the harvesting of the rice and Tet. Rice is the heartbeat of this community and each grain is sown, tended and hand-picked with the utmost care.
As we wend our way through the village to where Alex’s motorcycle is waiting we sidestep and dodge chickens, wild pigs, cows and irritated looking dogs. Alex explains that Tet is the time of year where all the family, including those that have flown the nest of the village to try their luck in modern-day Vietnam, return and celebrate with food and drink. When I asked about the drink he smiled and then giggled
“This is why rice is so important because it makes us even happier and funnier when we drink it”.
He’s referring to the locally brewed rice wine which forms a traditional part of the Lunar New Year celebrations.
We talk about food. He points at some of the animals wandering around and says that they are being prepared for the celebrations, “we eat the whole of the animal, especially the chicken. The whole chicken represents abundance and prosperity and this is the thing we cling to every year – the abundance of rice and prosperity for all our family wherever they are”.
As we approach the motorcycle, I have a wonderful respect for this kind of life; it is hard and parts of it I wouldn’t want, but the importance of food, of family and of having a belief that things will turn out for the good made me feel good. My son’s eyes were also opened to a new world, a new culture and an understanding of life beyond the distractions of our everyday life.
As was customary I haggled a price before the trip up the hill. The journey up the muddy steep track was hair raising but great fun. The last part was so steep that I had to disembark from the motorcycle and walk the rest, whilst Alex continued on with my son to Sapa. When I arrived we smiled, embraced and I paid him, with a little extra. That was the last I saw of Alex.
The humble chicken is such an important part of Vietnamese culture and its presence as a symbolic food is all around; from the blue legged chickens that I saw in Sapa market to the iconic dish of Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) that is present in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. My memory of this beautiful trip to Vietnam is given to you by means of a dish that I cooked at a cooking class in Sapa; a chicken dish of course. I hope it provides you abundance and prosperity.
Serves: 2 | Preparation: 15 minutes | Cooking: 30 minutes marinade + 10 minutes cooking
200g Chicken breast or thigh fillet | Cut in to bite sized pieces.
2 cloves Garlic | 1 minced; 1 finely chopped.
2 x 2cm pieces Ginger | 1 minced; 1 finely chopped.
2 tbsp. Peanut oil |
½ medium Brown onion | Chopped.
3 stalks Lemongrass | White part only – finely sliced.
1 medium Red chilli Finely chopped – a medium heat chilli is great.
1 medium Red pepper Chopped.
1 medium Green pepper Chopped.
2 tsp. Soy sauce |
2 tsp. Oyster sauce |
2 Spring onions | White part sliced into 1cm pieces.
1 sprig Coriander and Thai basil | For garnish.
To a bowl add the chicken, the minced garlic clove, the minced ginger and some salt and pepper to season, mix well and leave to marinade for 30 minutes.
To a wok add the peanut oil and when hot add the finely chopped clove of garlic, the finely chopped piece of ginger, the onion and lemongrass. Stir fry for about a minute over a medium heat until lightly golden. Take care not burn any of the ingredients as it will add an unwanted bitterness to the dish.
Up the heat to high and add the marinated chicken pieces, chilli, and the red and green peppers. Stir well, and then add the soy sauce and oyster sauce.
Stir fry for a further 2 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. Now add the coriander/ Thai basil and the spring onions and toss for 10 seconds. Serve immediately with steamed rice and garnish with some coriander or Thai basil.