The mekong delta

The mekong delta

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701578
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

Nguyen Toan stood at the stern of his boat and prayed, holding up three incense sticks to symbolise the past, present and future. Turning his back to the river, he was facing a whole roasted pig on display on the upper deck. Two neat rows of bowls filled with sweet bean-paste dumplings in syrup and plates with piles of pink coconut rice were lined up behind it. It was going to be a big day for the Nguyen family—celebrating the first birthday of their youngest family member, Hao (which means ‘lucky’). The family had been up since sunrise busily preparing for the birthday feast and were now ready to spend the rest of the day eating and drinking with relatives and friends, relieved that the boy had come through the difficult first twelve months on the river without getting in harm’s way.

The Mekong had been good to the extended Nguyen family. Rice farmers by trade, they decided twenty years ago to make a living by hauling cargo up and downstream. The business proved successful and they now own four boats, which on this day were anchored together near the town of Can Tho, with over one million inhabitants—by far the biggest in the delta.

With a length of more than 4,500 kilometres, the Mekong is one of the world’s largest rivers. It springs from the eastern Tibetan highlands about 5,200 metres above sea level and flows through China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Cambodia into Vietnam and then into the South China Sea.

Shortly after entering Vietnam, the Mekong splits into nine smaller rivers, hence the Vietnamese name of Nine Dragon River (Cuu Long Giang or Song Cuu Long). These nine rivers, together with countless canals and tributaries, criss-cross the thirteen provinces making up the delta, which once was part of the greater Cambodian empire of the Khmers. In the eighteenth century, Vietnamese forces pushed from Saigon into the delta, drove out the Khmer forces and made the area the final addition to what is now Vietnam. To this day, a sizeable part of the population is still of Khmer background, and Cambodia regularly demands a return of certain border provinces, but to no avail.

The Mekong is home to an amazing variety of fish, with more than twelve hundred species identified so far. The most popular for the dining table are the cat and elephant fish. Breeding these species on mobile fish farms is the latest growth industry in the delta. These farms are often no more than a barge with a corrugated iron shed and a three-metre net below where the fish are kept. This type of farming is particularly popular in Can Tho province where the currents are just right to provide the necessary nutrients, and fish farms are constantly being towed to different feeding grounds on the river.

Life in the delta revolves around the Mekong—a life force that nourishes not only the provinces of the region, but the country as a whole. The delta produces half of Vietnam’s fruit and vegetables on only one-fifth of the country’s land. It is also commonly referred to as Vietnam’s rice basket as the tropical climate, the rich soil and plenty of water for irrigation make for three -to-four good harvests every year.

Best of all, the waterways making up the delta are a ready-made network of transport routes to bring all that produce to market. The river is crowded with boats of all shapes and sizes—small wooden boats rowed standing up, longtail boats propelled by noisy outboards, small houseboats called sampans, which, incredibly, are home to extended families, and the squat wooden vessels built for carrying heavy loads.

Laden with mountains of mangoes, jackfruit, pineapple and giant grapefruit called pomelo, these boats crowd together on early mornings at the Cai Rang floating market about six kilometres south of Can Tho. This is a wholesale market where farmers from the surrounding villages bring their produce to sell to stallholders from the smaller local markets throughout the city, or to the food factories on the riverbanks for distribution to the rest of Vietnam.

Rice paper

Being the centre of Vietnam’s rice production, it is only logical that the Mekong Delta is also the centre for the production of rice paper and thin rice noodles called vermicelli. Most rice paper production takes place in small backyard factories. These are often no more than open sheds with thatched roofs, housing what look like operations from the height of the industrial revolution—noisy two-stroke engines with exposed belts and workers toiling over steam rising from the cook tops.

Making rice paper is a fairly straightforward process. Rice is soaked in water to soften it then turned into a kind of pancake mixture. The skill here is about consistency—a thicker mixture for rice paper, a thinner one for vermicelli. The mixture is then taken in big buckets to the cement hearths. Suspended above a fire fuelled by rice husks are round metal containers about 50 centimetres in diameter, which are covered by tightly stretched cotton sheets, like drums. There is a small hole for a hose to constantly top-up the water and keep the steam coming. A scoop of the rice pancake mixture is put on the cotton sheet, similar to preparing a crêpe on a hotplate. After three minutes, the steamed rice paper sheet is removed with a bamboo roller and put on a rack. The sheets then take three hours to dry in the sun until they turn translucent and are ready to be packaged, or shredded into vermicelli.

Recipes in this Chapter

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