Ha Giang is now known all over the world for its spectacular landscapes including golden terraced rice fields, limestone peaks and outcrops, valleys of flowers and the cultural diversity of its ethnic minority communities, who comprise almost 90% of its population.
With such a multi-cultural makeup, it is not surprising that Ha Giang’s cuisine reflects the diversity and many of the dishes found here are unique, and some of the have become well known, like thang co (simmered horse meat and offal), thang den (boiled glutinous rice dumplings stuffed with mung beans) and grilled algae.
But there is one dish which is very popular among locals and easy to find, but visitors, especially those making their debut in the province, find it intimidating because it is called “poisonous porridge.”
One of its main ingredients gives the dish a bitter taste, and people warn you that it can cause harm if not made well, but its popularity and ubiquitous presence in the city shows it is worth checking out.
The chao au tau, is a rice porridge with pork leg, stir-friend minced pork, and the au tau root.
Locals in Ha Giang are experts in using au tau, they know how to eliminate the poison in the root and combine it with rice, making it a dish that is actually healthy, helping ease joint pain and aiding sleep.
Though I’d been to Ha Giang before, I had stayed mostly in the remote districts like Dong Van, the karst plateau park and Hoang Su Phi, the land of terraced rice fields. It was only in latest trip last week that I had the chance to visit Ha Giang City and have au tau porridge for the first time.
“A trip to Ha Giang is not complete without having a bowl of au tau porridge,” my local friend Le Van Uoc.
Strolling along the city’s streets in misty, cold weather, I realised how different it was from what I had expected. The street was quite busy at night, offering a broad range of street food, with au tau porridge stalls the most populous.
Tran Hung Dao Street has the highest number of au tau porridge eateries, and “among them, Huong’s is the best,” my friend said.
Nguyen Thi Huong, a Ha Giang native, has been selling au tau porridge for years. She said the au tau tree grows mostly in the 2427m high Tay Con Linh, the highest peak in the province.
“The Mong and Dao people go to the peak to get the au tau root and soak it in wine. The mixture is used as a massage lotion or balm for curing minor pains,” she said.
“To use au tau as food, we have to be careful in processing it. Otherwise, it can poison diners,” Huong said, confirming what I’d heard earlier.
Au tau, which has the scientific name of Aconitum grows typically in high mountainous areas. Its root is hard as a rock, and thorny.
To make a big pan of au tau porridge, people have to work hard for almost a whole day.
The most difficult part is making the au tau safe.
The root is first cleaned and soaked in rice water (in which rice had been washed), for at least four hours or from early morning till noon. It is then taken out, cleaned again, and simmered in boiling hot water for another four hours. At this point, the root is safe and edible, and locals grind it for adding to the porridge, which itself is simmered with pork leg.
To make good porridge, locals use rice grown in hills. This rise is soaked in water from previous night till early morning so that the dish is soft and creamy.
Stir fried minced pork, pepper, scallion, perilla and chilli are added to the au tau porridge.
While the au tau gives the porridge a bitter taste that might put off the first time diner, the creaminess of rice and the sweetness of pork bones reduce the bitterness and create a unique taste.
“Au tau porridge is served only in the evening because it is said to be good for sleeping,” Uoc said.
“In the cold climate of a high mountainous area like Ha Giang, nothing can soothe you better than bowl of hot au tau porridge,” he added.