Ca chot (scientifically named Mystus) fish sauce is a specialty of Dong Thap province (Photo: VNA)

– The Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap is not only well-known for its beautiful landscapes but also special foods that have won the hearts of many visitors at home and abroad.

Some of the most popular are Cao Lanh grilled mice in terracotta jar, steamed rice in lotus leaves, snakehead fish smoked in rice straw, hotpot with Linh fish and cork flowers, and Sa Dec rice noodle soup.

Between bites of these savory meals, you can visit the province’s main attractions: Tram Chim National Park, Gao Giong Eco-Tourism Park, Xeo Quyt Eco-Tourism site, Sa Dec flower village, the ancient house of Huynh Thuy Le, and the Kien An Cung Pagoda.

But if sampling local cuisine is your passion, then you should spend time looking for its strange and wonderful dishes.

Ask any local and they will first recommend a dish that is considered a bit of a luxury: rice steamed in lotus leaves. With simple ingredients of rice, lotus seeds, sesame salt, shrimp and carrots, it can be otherworldly in the hands of a skilled chef.

In Sa Dec, a city known for its ornamental plants and bonsai, you should try hu tieu, made with noodles, pig’s bones, fresh shrimp and other ingredients. The Sẩm shop, one of the best places to find hủ tiếu Sa Đéc, can be found at 188 Trần Hưng Đạo Street. Diners from around the country often crowd its small space.

Tang Kien Hung, the shop’s owner, says that a special rice locally known as gao ngang is cultivated in the traditional craft village Tan Phu Dong.  

“Our cooks go to the market early in the day to select pig bones and pork meat (used to make char siu) and buy bean sprouts, quail eggs, onions, celery, scallions and turnips,” he says. 

Hung’s mother, who is no longer alive, began making the dish more than 50 years ago with high-quality fish, oyster and soy sauces as well as vinegar and sesame oil bought from prestigious suppliers.

Another famous dish of Dong Thap is snakehead fish smoked inside a burning mound of rice straw. The fish is first prepared and washed with unrefined salt and rinsed, and is then pierced with a stalk of lemongrass which removes the odour and adds a wonderful aroma.

The fish are placed in a vertical position in the ground and covered with rice straw, which is lit to make a fire that lasts about 20 minutes. After the straw is removed, the blackened skin of the fish is scraped off. Green onion oil is then poured over the fish, which is rolled in a lotus leaf along with crushed peanuts, vegetables and herbs. The entire roll is then wrapped with rice paper. 

A dipping sauce made with sweet-sour tamarind and fish sauce is served alongside the dish, which is said to represent the soul of the countryside of Dong Thap

Another provincial speciality is the Cao Lanh grilled mouse in a clay jar. The mice, which live in rice fields, only eat herbs and rice, so their meat is firm and aromatic. Diners say the dish tastes like wild deer. 

After the guts, skin and claws are removed, the mice are marinated with lemongrass and chili for 15 minutes and placed on top of a clay jar using special hangers and grilled for one hour under burning straw.

The mice are bathed in oil and spices and turned over periodically. With tender meat and a crispy exterior, the meat is served with a mixture of salt, pepper and lime juice as well as green banana, tomato, cucumber and Vietnamese mint.

Besides these unusual dishes, Dong Thap is known for it honey wine, ca linh (small carp) with dien dien (river hemp) flower hotpot, a delicacy of the region in the flood season, and nem lai vung (fermented pork roll), a delicious gift for friends and family members.

Dong Thap is about 160km from HCM City. You can take a bus for only 5 USD drive a motorbike, or hire a car. The trip will take about three to four hours. For accommodation, if you are want to understand farming life in Dong Thap, choose a homestay where the owner will show you how to harvest rice, catch fish with nets, tend vegetables, and catch ducks./.

VNA