Young Green Sticky Rice: Autumn’s Arrival in Hanoi

Young green rice, com, for sale in Hanoi

A quick glance at the fruits and vegetables stacked in the baskets of roaming food vendors in Hanoi reveals what season it is.  Now in early autumn, you can find a couple handfuls of such vendors wandering the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter or settled on the sidewalk to sell a favorite Hanoi fall snack called cốm or young green sticky rice. Cốm is favored by Hanoians for its subtle fresh nutty sweet flavor and fragrance.

I was recently invited by a Vietnamese television show to experience a taste of autumn in Hanoi. We shot over three days on the streets sampling sour autumn fruits like ambarella and dracontomelon (quả cóc and sấu chín) tossed with a sugar, salt, chili mixture; collecting then preparing a dish using lotus seeds from the lotus pond near my house; learning how young sticky rice is transformed into com, fragrant flat jade colored flakes; and then onto a local restaurant to make a few autumn dishes that incorporate the young green rice.

My day harvesting, threshing, roasting and pounding the rice was a delight and I shot some photos to record the entire process how cốm is made from start to finish.

Farmers readying to go home by bicycle after harvesting young green rice

A farmer carries young green rice stalks in the fields outside of Hanoi

The unripen rice is harvested each year from August to October. When farmers see the rice stalks beginning to bend and a pressed grain releases a milky droplet of moisture they know it is time to begin the harvest.

Cut rice stalks are carried using a carrying pole

I drove about 50 kilometres outside of Hanoi to a village and met some farmers in one of their fields. Arriving just around 5am I noticed the farmers busy at work and had been for some time as a quarter of the rice stalks of the approximately 30 X 40 metre field were already cut. They waved at me to join them in the harvest. The thin sharp sickles were not hard to use but Chi Mam showed me exactly where to cut, about 15cm (6 inches) from the base of the plant. After a couple hours of being hunched over slicing the stalks we took a short and much needed break eating sticky rice with mung beans for our breakfast. In typical fashion they asked my age, if I was married and did I have kids. They giggled as they found it funny that I could answer those basic questions in Vietnamese but then produced a blank expression as their questions became more detailed and I wasn’t exactly sure what they were asking. I switched the conversation back to the rice and the female farmers explained that this work tends to be done by women as the rice is not as heavy when unripen (compared to when fully ripe) and it allows the men to perform other chores.

Moving cut rice stalks from the field to tractor

Loading rice stalks on a tractor

Checking out the rest of work to be done while standing on a pile of rice stalks stacked in a tractor

A few of us began to load the tractor with the cut rice stalks as a couple others finished harvesting the field. Although just 8am the sun shone brightly and with such strength I understood why this laborious work begins so early in the morning. They encouraged me to climb on top of the pile of rice stalks and ride through the village to Chi Mam’s house just a few kilometres away. I got some bemused looks by their neighbors unsure of what to make of the situation.

The stalks were unloaded and then the husbands and wives teamed up to thresh, wash and pack the grains.  I was amazed at the grip and efficiency of the electric threshing machine. Moving at such a high speed you need to delicately move the bunch of stalks over the drum. Pressing too hard can shave off more of the stalk than required.

Teamwork: Threshing young green rice after the harvest

Mechanically threshing rice stalks

Rice stalks being mechanically threshed by farmers after harvest

Sweeping up the threshed young green rice

A woman carries a basket of young green rice kernels

The washing helps to separate the hollow grains and remove any unwanted parts of the stalk. These are kept and fed to the pigs. The grains are then loaded into 50 kg bags and three of these heavy bags are expertly balanced on the backs of motorbikes and driven to Vong Village 30 kilometres away an now within the city limits of Hanoi. Traditionally the families of Vong village would grow, harvest and then process the grains but as an urban village they no longer have any land to grow the rice and must purchase the rice from other farmers. Only about ten families in the village remain who hold the knowledge and maintain the tradition of processing the unripen rice grains into fragrant chewy jade rice flakes.

 

Washing young green rice

Washing of young green rice

Taking a break after the harvesting and threshing of rice

Bicycle with threshed rice stalks

I made my way to the home of Ba Hai, the family matriarch who has been making cốm for over 40 years. She and her son guided me through the process. The roasting, husking and pounding used to all be done by hand but each family has been creative in mechanizing the process while retaining the key elements that produce the well-loved cốm.

Freshly harvested young green rice kernels waiting to be roasted

Adjusting the fire during the roasting of young green rice

The roasting of the grains starts early around 4am and heat quickly surrounds the room. I thought working on the line in a busy kitchen is sweat producing but this wins hands down. They move the wood around to maintain a constant heat and use a mechanical arm to keep the grains constantly moving and to prevent them from becoming too dark or burning. If overcooked the final rice flakes will not retain their beautiful shade of green. The grains are roasted for about 90 minutes and are ready when the roaster judges that they retain a malleable sticky firmness and remain flat when pressed.

Young green rice kernels start the roasting process

Young green rice kernels being roasted

Checking to see if the rice has finished roasting

The roasted grains are left to cool and then passed through a machine 3-4 times to separate the rice from the husks and to begin the process of being slightly pressed. The discarded husks are used to start the fires for the roasting of the grains but generally they are sent back to feed the pigs.

Roasted young green rice cooling before husking

The roasted rice being husked

Husked young green rice before being pounded

The rice is then pounded using a large wooden mortar and pestle contraption until it is sufficiently flat. The flakes are then raked by hand to separate any clumps.

Husked young green rice being pounded into flat flakes

Checking to see if the young green rice has been pounded sufficiently

Removing clumps from the pounded young green rice

Hanoians can purchase freshly made cốm in autumn from vendors on the streets who are identified by the rice stalks attached to their baskets. Some vendors will sell two or three types of cốm based on freshness: made that morning to a week or so old. The cốm is wrapped in a bunch in two different leaves, first lá dáy and then lotus leaves and stored in a fridge to keeps fresh.

 

A street vendor with young green rice, com, for sale

Look for the green rice stalks tied or lying on the basket as indication vendor will be selling cốm.

Dried cốm can be purchased year round from shops on Hang Than street as it is used in different events such as wedding ceremonies or on ancestral alters.

A stack of green rice cakes for sale in Hanoi

Bánh cốm (green rice cakes) for sale at a shop on Hàng Than street in Hanoi.

Cốm can be used as an ingredient in spring rolls, to make che (a sweet dessert),  in ice cream (at 35 Trang Tien street) as a coating (like bread crumbs) on shrimp (Andrea Nguyen of Viet World kitchen has a nice recipe) or blanched pumpkin slices or simply accompanied with fall fruit (banana/ persimmon) or a simply eaten on its own.

Young green rice goes nicely with bananas

 

 

Amritsari Comfort Food at Kesar da Dhaba

My original intention of visiting Amritsar, like the millions of other annual visitors, was to see the principle pilgrimage site for followers of the Sikh religion, the Golden Temple. Specifically, I planned to spend a couple of days in the vast kitchen complex to find out how the temple managed to feed over 100,000 people each day.

phirni at kesar da dhaba amritsar, punjab

A young boy carries phirni, a creamy rice pudding served chilled in earthenware pots.

My flight was delayed in Delhi making my arrival in Amritsar closer to 8pm. I hadn’t eaten since noon and was famished. A friend, Mayur Sharma, who co-hosts a television show in India called Highway on My Plate, suggested if I had time to make a stop at a well-known dhaba nestled in the crowded alleyways of the older part of Amritsar. I exited the airport, found a taxi and surprised the driver by asking in Hindi to take me to the famous Kesar da Dhaba. He smiled, gave me an approving head tilt and whisked me towards Amritsar.
Dhabas are roadside eateries dotted along the national highways of India. I like to consider that they are similar in concept to the traditional French country bistro, where many of them offer, cheap, plentiful delicious meals yet in a more rustic setting. All of them started out as poorly built shacks specializing in one or two items. If they gained popularity with locals and travellers, and possessed business acumen, a purpose built restaurant would be set up to cater to their future needs. Nowadays, if you were to travel from New Delhi through the state of Punjab to the Pakistani border and ask any dhaba or restaurant that has been around since partition the story would be similar to Kesar da Dhaba’s.

Kesar Da Dhaba takeout vegetarian food.

Customers wait for their vegetarian takeout. For them it was stuffed potato and cauliflower parathas, raita, green mango pickles and mint chutney.

 

Tadka Dal in the kitchen of Kesar Da Dhaba, Amritsar, India

Preparing the tadka; the final seasoning of the dal where spices are tempered in pure desi ghee.

Ma ki dal cooked in a deg at Kesar da Dhaba.

A deg is used to cook the ma ki dal. A deg is a traditional cooking vessel made out of brass or copper whose shape and thick bottom are essential in allowing for even heat distribution during long cooking processes. Ma ki dal cooks for close to 14 hours at Kesar da Dhaba.

In 1916, in Sheikupura, Pakistan Mr. Lala Kesar Mal and his wife Parvati opened a small food stall serving basic dal and paratha. When Partition occurred in 1947 the recipes for these two dishes travelled with them and settled in Amritsar. And ever since visitors to Kesar da Dhaba are treated to homemade, simple vegetarian food.
Ramesh Mehra is now the fourth generation managing the restaurant. He explained that as time passed they added more dishes to the menu to offer greater options to customers but have not changed the recipes of their main dishes specifically the popular tadka dal, ma ki dal and phirni. Since they need to make over 4,000 parathas each day they once tried to use a machine to mix the dough but they received too many complaints so they switched back to all of the breads being hand mixed and rolled.

Laccha parathas being shaped in Amrtitsar

The parathawallah who shapes flaky laccha parathas.

laccha paratha making at Kesar da Dhaba

Flattening some dough to ready for the coil like shaping.

shaping paratha dough

The paratha being coiled which helps give the flaky layers.

coiled laccha parathas

Flaky layers in waiting.

laccha parathas

Laccha parathas waiting for the warmth of the tandoor.

plain parathas as dough in Kesar da Dhaba

Dough being pressed and hand patted into plain parathas before heading into the tandoor.

plain paratha tandoor oven kesar da dhaba

Pillowed dough moments away from kissing the hot tandoor wall.

paratha tandoor oven

Plain parathas briefly nestled in the tandoor oven.

breads in tandoor oven at kesar da dhaba

baked parathas

Removing baked parathas using long skewers from the tandoor.

baked flaky laccha parathas

Flaky laccha parathas checking the Champion’s league results.

plain parathas baked at Kesar Da Dhaba Amritsar

Stacked plain parathas prior to their lather of melted butter.

The dining areas felt tired and tattered. A fresh coat of paint and some changes in lighting could help improve the setting. Whatever was lacking in décor was made up in the flakiness of the laccha paratha, the rich softness of the spicy tadka dal, the tanginess of a cooling lassi and the welcoming Punjabi hospitality.

Note: I took this trip to Amritsar in April 2010.

phirni in earthen ware bowls

Small earthen bowls being filled with Kesar da Dhaba’s popular phirni.

 

gulab jamun and phirni at kesar da dhaba

Desserts at Kesar da Dhaba: sugar soaked gulab jamun and rosewater sprinkled phirni

phirni at kesar da dhaba

Yes. There is someone under the phirni.

 

Makaibari Tea Estate

Tea Flushes for Tasting

Some tastes stay with you forever. The moment the warm amber liquid slid from the edge of a hand shaped teacup, onto my lips, and slowly swished around in my mouth, I knew I had tasted something special. I put the teacup down, picked up the small gold sticker and read ‘First Flush 2005 Makaibari Tea Estates, Darjeeling’. The loose-leaf tea, picked several months earlier, was a gift from a dinner guest the night before. I had drunk loose-leaf tea before but it was generally an herbal mixture. My go to comfort tea, and still is, was Twining’s Earl Grey. But there was something unique with this liquid brew. All at once, there was delicacy and depth; a natural sweetness with a touch of bitterness; an earthiness that reminded me of walking over a bed of fallen leaves during mid autumn in Gatineau park. I had not tasted a tea whose flavour was as well rounded as this one.
The Makaibari First Flush instantly became my special afternoon pick me up tea. A year later I also started using Makaibari’s Apoorva tips when making chai. I learned that Makaibari followed biodynamic and permaculture principles. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more by visiting the tea estate. This was finally possible in March 2010 when I made the journey through the winding roads of the Himalayas eventually reaching Kurseong, just south of the hill station of Darjeeling.

Entry Sign to Makaibari

 

Rajah Checks the tea buds

 

438

 

Makaibari is believed to be the oldest tea estate in Darjeeling having been established in 1859. Four successive generations of the Banerjee family have run the estate with its current owner, the eccentric and entertaining Rajah, having become a pioneer and champion in the cultivation of organic tea in Darjeeling. Even during the late 1970s Rajah started to see the effects that soil erosion was having on his own and other various tea estates that dot the hills of Darjeeling. He slowly started to implement permaculture practices and over the following decade slowly adopted organic agriculture towards the management of the tea gardens becoming the first organic tea plantation in India in 1986 (and later on the first to have their teas certified Fair Trade). During the 1980s he saw how these changes were producing beneficial effects on the taste of the tea and the health of his plants. But he wanted push things even further and by 1991 had transformed the estate into a fully biodynamic system, where the soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock are all interrelated.

Two Tea Pickers

 

steep slopes at MakaibariTea pickers on estate

These holistic and alternative practices are also carried over to the 7 village communities, whose many habitants work for Makaibari, spread around the plantation. A joint body of elected members, primarily women, have bi-monthly meetings to cover development issues and how funds for the community should be spent. Improved sanitation, retirement stipends and life long health care became immediate priorities. There are 3 small nurseries and 3 primary schools for 3-10 year olds on the estate. Teenagers go to other nearby villages for high school. I spent several days at the plantation and stayed in the home of a family living in one of the villages. Only the husband worked in the main factory building. His parents had both worked in the tea estate – his father in the factory and mother as a picker. He made enough money now, through his work and the homestay program, that his wife did not need to take on a job outside the home. His two children were in college and had no intentions of working for Makaibari. They did however, intend to return to the area and look for more professional office jobs.

School at Makaibari

 

Tea Picker PortraitHaving Lunch at Makaibari

Harvesting and packaging tea requires about ninety percent manual labour. I spent several days following the tea pickers, predominantly women of Gurkha or Nepali background, up and down the steep slopes of the tea garden. They are strong women doing very laborious, back break work. It is no wonder that their children do not want to follow in their footsteps. The social and educational investments Makaibari has contributed to the communities have been successful in each successive generation getting better jobs on or off the estate.

Picking Tea LeavesSmile at MakaibariTaking A BreakRajah inspecting tea leavesDrying Tea LeavesSorting Tea Leaves

 

Rajah Explains Teas

My store of Makaibari tea is currently limited making each brew that more special. When I do get the chance to savour the delicious nectar I am reminded of the special people and communities responsible for nurturing the tea estate’s ecosystem.

Kollam and Coconuts

So this is it, the end of the trip. Cameron is on the long flight back to Canada and -36 and we are left in Trivandrum in 36 degrees. Almost three weeks of non stop travel and good food, beautiful people and places.

After going to sunday church we waited to meet some members of the fishing community in Kollam, a medium size fishing town. It had had lots of money spent on it, three story flats and concrete, bars on windows and locks on doors. Its strange how money and so called progress makes such fundamental changes to the community. We managed to track down a local activist Andrews Ambrose who we hoped would open all kinds of doors for us but he didn’t, he just closed his and said he would need to discuss our work with the committee, so we got in a car and found the local fish market just north of Kollam.

Sardines, millions of them, boat after boat, crate after crate, noise, smell and movement. It was amazing to see just how much in one small port, by just a few fishing boats could be landed. On an average day about 5,000 baskets each weighing around 30-40 kg are bought in, on a good day 10,000. These are big commercial boats that trawl the seas all night, from the beach after the sun has set it looks like a far off city of twinkling lights.

In the morning on Kovalam beach, I sat and watched around thirty local fishermen land their beach nets, from sunrise to about 9am they move across the beach with their ropes, singing rhythmically as they draw in the nets. The whole community working together then sharing what they bring in. This time as is now more the case, their nets were empty. Just a couple of crab, an eel and some small and terrified mackerel. There is such a disconnect with the business man who owns the boat and the people who work it to the resource they are harvesting. It merely becomes a financial transaction and is bereft of emotion, culture and respect. But hey, the fishermen have those wonderful tourists to fall back on!

On our way to Trivandrum, stopping at one of the wonderful Indian Coffee Houses. Puri bhaji and sweet milky coffee pulled us all together and we ended up in the kitchen to see what they were putting in the rather strange colored bhaji… it was all a bit suspect but turned out to be beetroot.

Then again to the amazing Laurie Baker designed Indian Coffee House in front of the train station. This circular building has a spiral dinning hall and over thirty tables, cool air and natural light, a far cry from the normal “hotel” eating joints we end up in.. blacked out glass a squeaky old fan blowing hot smoke and chillie filled air around the room while eliminated by the wonders of strip lighting. How simple it could all be if we though about more than just how to make a bit of money.

Coconuts seemed to be a good start so we headed off the main roads and stopped at coir villages. The book we will put together will be a combination of recipes and stories on food, the people the culture and the environment and how they are part of a whole. What has taken us ten thousands years of toil, understanding and respect is true sustainability, what we are being sold as food security and sustainability is little more than a resource grab. Its only when you travel deep into the villages that you begin to understand how it all works and how it needs to work.

So coconuts would be a perfect story for the book. From its religious, cultural significance, its water and milk, its flesh and its shell, for oil to cook and oil to burn, wood and leaves for building, fiber for materials and so we could go on. One tree with endless possibilities. So this is very much were we need to go with the project the connection to the source of our food and our cultures. Thank you Cameron for starting this up. And thank you Chintan, you’ve been amazing.  Its going to work!

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-coconut-revolution/

NOTE: This was originally posted on my blog India On My Plate on January 27, 2011

God’s own country

So finally we arrived in beautiful Kerala and it really seems to be god’s own country. We just hope it stays that way. Almost 100% of the population are educated…and it shows.

 

Upon arriving in Fort Kochi, we made our way down to the main waterfront where the fishermen bring in their catch to be weighed and auctioned.  Kingfish, pomfret, mackerel, and rather large cuttlefish appeared to be the species in demand. Much of the kingfish apparently makes its way to north India, Hong Kong or even the Middle East.

 

While living in Delhi, many times I had been told about the wonderful food served at the Philipkutty home stay.  We decided to make the hour and a half journey from Fort Kochi to meet one of the owners, Anu Matthew. Philipkutty’s farm is situated on an island in the ‘backwaters’ – a unique fresh and salt water ecosystem- interconnected freshwater rivers and canals that feed towards the sea, through a couple of larger lakes, that seasonally get charged with saline water, when the sea backs up. A system of locks and sluices keep the salt from the freshwater. Initially the farm practiced ‘modern’ rice cultivation.

 

However, Anu’s deceased husband Vinod realised the challenges of single crop farming and over time moved the farm towards a more sustainable inter crop system. During the last 10 years the farm has been undergoing a transformation towards using greater organic methods to grow and harvest the coconuts, fruits, vegetables, and assorted spices such as nutmeg, mace, pepper and vanilla.

 

As we boarded the kettuvallom, the traditional boat of the backwaters maneuvered using a single long bamboo pole, the warm scent of drying coconuts welcomed us to the farm. It was later explained that the farm made its own coconut oil for cooking and cosmetic purposes.

 

Anu introduced us to the culinary authority in their home, her mother in law, Aniamma Philip, aka Mummy. For the next couple of hours, in the courtyard under the shade of a large mango tree, Mummy divulged some of her kitchen secrets.” If you add the crushed spices too early to a duck curry the flavour and colour of the sauce will become cloudy”, she said.

 

Similarly, as she made the beetroot pachadi (a lightly cooked vegetable or fruit mixed with grated coconut, yogurt, and spices) she described how the last minute tempering of fragrant curry leaves, chillies, mustard and fenugreek seeds provides a more complex layer of flavour. Anu shared with us her favourite thoran (stir fried vegetable with grated coconut and spices) recipe made from banana blossom. Mummy also showed us her version of a red snapper curry with lots of curry leaves and red chillies. The finished dish has a wonderful balance of heat and sourness from the local sour kokum fruit.

 

Over lunch, they said that we were quite lucky to be visiting while ducks were available in the market. Anu explained that after the harvest of rice farmers bring in ducks to clean up their paddy area by eating the remainder rice and in the process fattening them up to become a tasty seasonal treat. As we drove back to Fort Kochi we came upon a farmer who was selling some of his paddy-fed ducks by the side of the road.

 

 

We travelled southward to the community of Kollam. This coastal area of south Kerala is made up of small fishing hamlets of the three predominant faiths: Christian, Muslim and Hindu. Since it was the day of rest, there was limited fishing activities, we decided to visit the various churches within the communities.  We are looking forward to the next few days of being back on the water and in the kitchens learning more about the fishing families of Kerala.

 

 

NOTE: This was originally posted on my blog India On My Plate on January 23, 2011