They only appear during rainy seasons in the lunar months of June and July. They will not show up with little rain. After cleaning, the Thai will let hen dry, then mix them with salt and brew the sauce.
Quang Thi Cuong in Lau village, who has years of experience in making mam hen sauce, said that the proportion of salt should be paid great attention to.
“It takes 20 to 30 days to brew hen with salt. If too much salt is used, it will naturally be too salty. But if you don’t put enough salt in, the sauce will become sour. I use 2 to 2.5 grams of salt for every 1 kg of hen, on average. In some places, people will mix it with chilies, thus it only takes a few days to make the sauce, but then it will be less aromatic,” he said.
After brewing, hen will continue to be mixed with chopped chilies, garlic, and white wine. Ripe red chilies are boiled until soft, and set aside to dry before chopped or blended. The mixture will be brewed for another 10 days and it will be ready to enjoy.
Ms. Cuong said: “The sauce’s expiry date is within a year as long as the jar is closed tightly. Add a pinch of seasoning and it’s ready to eat. You can dip boiled bamboo shoots or boiled pork or vegetables into the sauce. The scrambled mixture of egg and mam hen is also mouth-watering.”
Mam hen sauce is red, dense with the fantastic aroma of hen blended with garlic and chilies. It tastes good when accompanying sticky rice and boiled bamboo shoots, and both are specialties of the Northwestern region.
The Thai used to use it as dish for long-term storage. Nowadays, the sauce has become a specialty that local people offer their friends, guests, and relatives. It is included in numerous restaurant menus.
Tran Thanh, a visitor from Hanoi shared his thoughts: “I liked mam hen the very first time I tried it. It tastes fantastic when I dip boiled bamboo shoots into it. I can eat a bowl of rice with just this sauce and nothing else. I often buy it for my family and friends.”
Coming up next, we are going to visit Ha Nam Island, Quang Ninh province to discover how the people there make dishes from a mollusk called ngan.
Situated at the mouth of a river, as well as along a coastline, Ha Nam Island is endowed with plenty of unique seafood including ngan, a mollusk that is similar to a scallop but much bigger, as large as 3 fingers, with scabrous shell. Not only is it tasty but also nutritious since it provides protein, glucose, fatty acids, and vitamins.
A handful of regions in Vietnam have ngan but the Bach Dang river mouth in Ha Nam Island has long been known as the place where the best ngan can be found as it has a long coastline and grand mangroves.
It used to be so abundant that the local people made it part of their everyday diet. They can make many dishes with ngan such as ngan porridge, stirred ngan with noodles, and steamed ngan with glutinous rice. In the past, ngan always played an essential role in the meals of local people during the Tet or Lunar New Year holiday. They tended to cook it simply to keep its original flavor.
Having years of experience in making Tet meals for people in Hà Nam Island, Nguyen Trong Khiem shared some tips for preparing ngan: “Ngan has long been the specialty of Ha Nam Island. You should choose the fresh and flat ones no matter how big or small they are. Boil for a maximum 3 minutes to keep it succulent. If the liquid inside it leaks, ngan will lose its nutrition”.
Ngan’s shell must be cleaned and tightened by a string before boiling to keep the liquid inside it. When removing the string, the shell will open naturally. Put its white salty intestine and liquid into a bowl, add some spices and chili, and you can enjoy it to the fullest.
In the past, local people often collected ngan when Tet was coming. When the tide ebbed away, they used a long stick to dig into the mud. Using this method, each individual could find 4 to 5 kg of ngan to cook Tet meals. Hoang Thi Lam, a local woman, recalled: “Women here used to catch ngan to make dishes for the Tet holiday. Even the poor had this dish during Tet. Nowadays, it has become less popular. I really miss the old days.”
Ngan has become a luxury food item as it gradually gets more scarce. It can cost up to US$25 for a kg so not many families in Ha Nam Island can afford it during Tet. Though the Tet meal naturally features other dishes, the taste of ngan is still in the memories of the older generation.