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Specialties of Thai people in Dien Bien

Fri, 12 Sep 2014 . Last updated Thu, 25 Jun 2015 08:48

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Traveling Dien Bien, you are not only deeply impressed by the friendliness and the warmth of local Thai people but also amazed by simple but delicious flavor of specialties in Dien Bien cuisine, especially “Cham Cheo”.

Talking about Dien Bien, people must think about one of the most glorious chapters in Vietnam history. But it is not only history, Dien Bien offers. Today, we will learn more about the specialties of Thai ethnic people, the largest ethnic community in Dien Bien province. There are many Thai villages scattered around the Dien Bien and Tuan Giao districts, not far from the center of Dien Bien Phu city. Visitors to Dien Bien are impressed by the province’s efforts to preserve Thai ethnic culture value including customs, housing, daily activities, rituals and especially distinctive cuisine which is various kinds of spices.

Thai cuisine is various, makes the great impression on visitors. One of the Thai people most distinctive is “Cham Cheo”. For Thai families in Dien Bien province, there is a special kind of sauce that is indispensable in their daily meals and that is called “cham cheo”. Nestled in the immense mountains and immense fields, Men village has more than 110 households with over 500 inhabitants for all Black Thai people. The local people here live by growing crops, raising livestock, weaving textile and brocade. 

According to Mr. Thuong, the head of Men village, “Cham cheo” is an indispensable dish in the daily meals of Thai people. It helps to increase the flavor of the dishes. It’s a special kind of sauce. The main ingredients of “cham cheo” includes chili, garlic and “mac khen”. “Mac khen” is a kind of wild pepper, which is very spicy and aromatic.

Thai people think the good woman must be laborious, kind-hearted and skillful in the kitchen works. Thai people often like the strong flavor of nutrition grilled dishes which are used many different ingredients. Thuong told me that previously, “mac khen” trees were everywhere. Local people here used to cut down the whole tree just to collect a few kilos of “mac khen”.  So the tree has become scared and people have to come deep in the jungle to find them. The price of “mac khen” has increased from1.2 to 1.5 million VND per kilo. “Mac khen” is a wild plant of citrus family which has lots essential oil and aroma. The tree blooms in late spring and bears fruits in small bunches during summer. At the end of summer, local people often go to the forest and collect the fruit. This mac khen tree is over 10 meters high and not much fruit as the local people have harvested some earlier. The remains are about 7 kilos, but today we just pick some bunches.

The small bunches of mac khen are then dried out under the sunlight for months. The dried mac khen are sold in local market or stored to become. After about a month, these fruits will be dried and turned brown. Their cover will be cracked imposing the tiny black seeds.  So now we have dried “mac khen”. We need other ingredients for “cham cheo” sauce as chili, coriander and leeks. All these ingredients are available in the garden of Thai families. If they do not have enough, they can pick them up from their neighbors.

Firstly, we need roast dried “mac khen”, and then we crush it. We also have to grill the chili. We have to stick all chili together, then grill it. It smells better for “cham cheo” sauce. The chilies which are used in “cham cheo” sauce are a very special kind of spice known as rice chili and only found in Northwestern Vietnam. Here in Men village, people often roast both the “mac khen” shell and seed even the sprig. The special aroma of “mac khen” is thanks to cover which contains the lots of amount essential oil. After roasting “mac khen”, we grill chili. After grilling chili, Quyen sliced them with all the seed. Roasted “mac khen” have to crushed which to be used not only in “cham cheo” but also to marinate at any dishes. After crushing “mac khen” and slicing chilies, we will cut leeks and do the coriander.

To make “cham cheo”, we not only use the “mac khen” pounder but also making other types of herbs. All these vegetables are cleaned and sliced. We have to slice all these herbs then put them together with chilies and “mac khen” in the motar to crush. The most common dish served with “cham cheo” is steamed sticky rice. A piece of steamed sticky rice combined with the fragrant of “cham cheo” is something you should not ignore when you visit a Thai family in Dien Bien city. Apart from accompanying steamed sticky rice, many people like eating “cham cheo” with boiled buffalo meat or other kind of boiled and grilled meat. There are many different kinds of “cham cheo” sauce and many different ways to create one.

As we can see, Men village is favored by nature with beautiful sceneries, the fresh air, and cool, green and clean environment. Goose grass is a kind of weed which grows everywhere and most still along the riverbank. In the plain area, people often use goose grass as a kind of food for castle. However, according to the traditional medicine, goose grass is valuable medicine for clearing fever, high blood pressure, dysentery or hepatitis. Thai ethnic people as other ethnic groups in the Northwestern region often use vegetables taking from the forest as the natural source of food which is both nutritional and good for health.

For years, fresh cassava leaves have been a familiar kind of vegetable for families in the mountainous areas. They eat cassava leaves and other vegetables in the daily meal. Thai people have many simple dishes as cassava leaves. They crumpled up the leaves carefully, at least 4 to 5 times to eliminate the cyanhydric acid which is toxic. Boiled cassava leaves are accompanied by “cheo sac chau” or lemon glass sauce. Meanwhile, goose grasses are used as the salad which is eaten with “cheo kha” or blue ginger sauce. India is well known for cirri pounder, Thailand has known for chili, Kinh people have hundreds of kinds of spices and ethnic community in the northwestern region has renowned “cham cheo” sauce. This kind of sauce is more than a common spice; it increases the flavor of Northwestern cuisine. “Cham” means dipping; “cheo” means sauce with many different ingredients. That’s why Thai ethnic people have many kinds of “cham cheo” which are used for different food.

Grill few small fishes caught from the stream, then grind with the basic “cham cheo”, grilled fish sauce is served with bamboo shoot and boiled vegetable. Boil chicken or dark liver then grill and add some slices lemon leaves, grind all these ingredients, mix with basic “cham cheo” and add chicken broth. Chicken liver sauce is served with boiled meat and chicken. Slice blue ginger into thin pieces then grind, add some slice lemon leaves and mix with basic “cham cheo”. Blue ginger sauce is served with bitter bamboo shoot, boiled or grilled meat. Thai people have many other different “cham cheo” which are handed down from previous generation. This is the combination of different spices which are used not only a kind of dipping sauce but also a remedy. Whatever they eat raw fish, grilled meat or buffalo meat, they never get stomachache. Surely, anyone who has ever taste this kind of spice will not forget its typical strong smell and flavor. Together with Thai women exception cooking technique, the unique flavor from mountain and forest has attracted numerous food-lovers to the northwestern region besides its history.

Subtle aroma of “mac khen” follows the Thai family’s meals, Thai women have been using this spices for hundreds of years to cook simple, yet delicious and nutritional dishes for their family. According to cultural experts, “mac khen” creates the flavor of Thai cuisine. The characteristics of Thai cuisine are dried food. Their grilled food is associated with “mac khen”. “Pa pinh top” is a dish which uses an entire fish. If the fish is too big, it’ll be cut from the back, folded and grilled. Prior to grilling, the fish’s stomach is marinated with mac khen powder. Thai people really like the internal organs of the fish, which is a little bit bitter. The bitterness inside the fish mixed with other spices make the taste better. More importantly, using a certain amount of “mac khen” powder depends on every person’s taste as it is quite pungent and hot. Or it can depend on each dish. Some dishes use a large amount of “mac khen”, while others don’t. They need just a little bit to add the flavor. For example, the “Mok to cay” or steamed chicken, which is wrapped in the banana leaves or Dong leaves and then steamed. “Mac khen” is not only use in “cham cheo” or a dipping sauce but it is also an important ingredient and important spices that is used in many dishes as chicken, fish or vegetables. If you have chance to visit Dien Bien, you should enjoy the special sauce.


Source: VTV4 –

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