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Foodwise: Trying Thái specialties in Sơn La

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Nộm da trâu (buffalo skin salad) and  nhót xanh cuốn bắp cải (green elaeagnus latifolia) wrapped in cabbage, are unique and tasty specialties of the ethnic Thái group in the northwestern province of Sơn La.

Unbelievable: Young urban people seem to love buffalo leather salad.


Nộm da trâu (buffalo skin salad )

I was lucky to be make the dish with my sister-in-law’s mother, Nông Thị Huyền, who is from Sơn La. She prepares the salad only for dear guests.

Huyền said in the lowlands, buffalo skin was used to make drum covers because it was hard and thick, but Thái housewives knew how to turn it into a culinary specialty.

Not so tough: A plate of salad made from buffalo leather.


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.

Huyền 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 trám trắng (canarium album), garlic, water from fermented bamboo shoots and mắc khén (a special fruit used to make spice among the Tháis) before mixing fresh rau dớn (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.

Hard to find: Mắc khén (a fruit of Sơn La forest) is the main ingredient to make the special sauce to dip buffalo leather salad.


I loved the salad’s aromatic mắc khén flavour, the light sourness of fermented bamboo shoots, the acrid and bittersweet flavour of forest vegetables and the rich taste of fried groundnut.

Nhót xanh cuộn bắp cải (green elaeagnus latifolia wrapped in cabbage)

Like the salad buffalo skin, this dish is also a special treat of the Thái people.

A Thái elder, named Hoàng Thị Hò, said the main ingredient was green nhót fruit.

Another vital ingredient is chẩm chéo (a special salt made by the Thái people), which includes garlic, ginger, chili, and coriander sativum. The ingredients are crushed before being mixed with several spoonfuls of fish sauce and sugar.

Ingredients: Nhót and other ingredients, such as cabbage and chẩm chéo sauce.


Hò 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 chẩm chéo sauce,” said Hò, 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 Tháis place most importance on this,” said Hò.

Hanoian Phùng Thị Trang said young urban people love the dish so much. “We visit Sơn La once a year when the nhót fruit season comes in the third and fourth lunar months.”

Local Thái herbalist Lò Văn 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.


Source: VNS

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