Thai food experience in Son La

Nga Do
Coming to Son La, you will be able to admire a majestic mountainous region and discover the unique cultural values of the Northwestern ethnic groups, as well as attracted in the dance, drop soul in flickering fire and sweet singing, resounding in the forest music festival, faintly drunk in the wine yeast need the same food with bold flavor of the Thai.

1. Nom da trau (buffalo skin salad )

I was lucky to be make the dish with my sister-in-law’s mother, Nong Thi Huyen, who is from Son La. She prepares the salad only for dear guests. Huyen said in the lowlands, buffalo skin was used to make drum covers because it was hard and thick, but Thai housewives knew how to turn it into a culinary specialty. She warned me that the process to make the dish was complicated, but worth the effort.

First the leather is held over a fire to burn all the hair off. Then it is scraped of the outer black skin until it becomes light. Huyen told me to boil the skin for an hour before soaking it in cold water for another hour to ensure it becomes crispy. The most difficult part is cutting the skin. It takes a sharp knife and skill to slice off thin pieces and soak them in warm water mixed with lemon juice to make it soft and fragrant.

She then soaked the slices for an hour with special spices from the northwestern forests, such as tram trang (canarium album), garlic, water from fermented bamboo shoots and mac khen (a special fruit used to make spice among the Thai) before mixing fresh rau don (forest vegetable) and banana inflorescense and covering it with fried ground nuts.

If I hadn’t seen the process first-hand, I could never imagine that the tender dish was made from such hard skin. All my family members, including my two grandchildren, enjoyed it so much. “I could eat the whole plate,” said one. I loved the salad’s aromatic mac khen flavour, the light sourness of fermented bamboo shoots, the acrid and bittersweet flavour of forest vegetables and the rich taste of fried groundnut.

2. Nhot xanh cuon bap cai (green elaeagnus latifolia wrapped in cabbage

Like the salad buffalo skin, this dish is also a special treat of the Thai people. A Thai elder, named Hoang Thi Ho, said the main ingredient was green nhot fruit. Another vital ingredient is cham cheo (a special salt made by the Thai people), which includes garlic, ginger, chili, and coriander sativum. The ingredients are crushed before being mixed with several spoonfuls of fish sauce and sugar.

Ho said each eater serves his or herself by cutting the fruit into pieces and then wrapping them and other above-mentioned ingredients in a piece of cabbage. “It will be much more enjoyable when dipped in the cham cheo sauce,” said Ho, noting that the dish was always eaten with friends because talking and joking were considered another spice to add to the dish. “Our traditional dish helps to promote sentiment and solidarity among family members and guests. We Thais place most importance on this,” said Ho.

Hanoian Phung Thi Trang said young urban people love the dish so much. “We visit Son La once a year when the nhot fruit season comes in the third and fourth lunar months.” Local Thai herbalist Lo Van Chu, 77, said the dish had existed for hundreds of years and had been passed down over generations. “The dish not only helps eaters create good appetitites, but also cools down the body and treats many ailments such as diarrorhea and sunstroke.

3. Dried buffalo meat

Dried buffalo meat has been a familiar favorite with lots of tourists. However, not many people know buffalo meat is one of 10 best dishes in the northwest region of Vietnam. It is famous for its unique taste. This is actually a very demanding dish in terms of cooking. First of all, we have to gather all the essential ingredients: buffalo meat, veggies and spices. To make a top quality dish, we must use fresh meat from the muscles of the buffalo. Besides, we also need to get citronella, ginger, garlic, chilies, sugar, and a local spice called Mac Khen.

First step is to remove the sinews from the meat before cutting it into 7-8cm pieces. Next, we mince the meat with all the spices following a specific ratio. After leaving the meat untouched for about 2-3 hours, we use a small stick to hang the pieces of meat above hot coal so that they can get cooked gradually. It is important that we keep the meat pretty far away from the coal to minimize the possibility that it becomes burned outside but uncooked inside. After around 1 hour, the meat will get a brownish color and spread out a tempting fragrance. That is exactly when we know the dish is done.

We can either eat the meat right away or save it for later. However, always remember to reheat the meat a little bit before you eat it. By doing that simple step, you would be able to enjoy the sweet buffalo meat as well as the impressive flavor of the spices only found in the northwestern region.

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