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Tom Chua (fermented sour shrimp) is a specialty of Viet Nam and can be found in several provinces and cities such as Hue in the central region, but the most delicious dish comes from the northern mountainous province of Bac Kan's Ba Be Lake, according to professional chef Pham Tuan Hai.
The Hue sour shrimp is much sweeter, sourer and fiery compared with the natural flavour of Ba Be shrimp, he said.
Hai said he discovered the dish some years ago while touring Ba Be Lake.” The tom chua attracted me to its light sweet and sour flavours and the richer taste coming from the meat. Diners who have a chance to enjoy the dish understand the reason why locals are so proud of their specialty.”
He said many of his friends wanted to visit Ba Be Lake not only for its charming natural landscape but to have a chance to taste the dish made by local people.
“I was very moved the first time I visited the lake because locals joyfully welcomed us into their homes to enjoy tom chua with a cup of homemade maize wine. I will never forget the greasy flavour of the shrimp mixed with different spices.
Nong Thi Noong, 63, from the Tay ethnic group said she ordered fresh shrimp from a neighbour who specialise in netting shrimp from the lake. “I select juicy shrimp very carefully before fermenting them with salt.”
Other ingredients include glutinous rice, garlic, grated galangal, salt and spices.
“We buy the sticky rice grown high in the mountains because it's more fragrant and soft. After steaming it and letting it cool, I mix it with special yeast made by the people of Ba Be and brew it for two days before adding all the ingredients into a jar for 7-10 days,” Noong said, noting that the dish should be eaten with boiled pork leg or bacon cut into thin pieces.
It’s most enjoyable with a plate of boiled pig ears mixed with powdered grilled rice known as thính gạo, a popular culinary spice in Viet Nam, in addition to young banana, dinh lang leaves, and may sau leaves, she said, noting that she also made fermented fish to combine with the sour shrimp to create a special dish that diners found difficult to resist.
Most local housewives know how to make sour shrimp. Many of them make it for sale and while others make enough for their families to enjoy the year-round, and to send it to their relatives and friends at home and abroad.
Hai recalled a story about the first time he was invited to try the dish.
“With several fermented shrimp, I ate four bowls of rice at the same time without being satiated because I had a full experience of the dish’s sour, peppery, salty and sweet flavours from the first bite. The fragrance of the galangal stood out in my throat and made me thought I was still hungry even though I was full."
He said his friend Phuong Ngoc Tung is renowned for being a picky eater, but also agreed the dish was unforgettable.
“Enjoying the dish with a small cup of local wine made me lightheaded.”
“I want to buy some jars of shrimp to take to my relatives.”
Noong said that visitors wishing to buy a jar of shrimp should visit Khang Ninh Market, which is held every five days.
“As well as other mountain produce, sour shrimp is available for the affordable price of VND 80,000-90,000 per 300g.”
Apart from locals, many visitors have also become addicted to the dish.
“Those wishing to taste the dish should come to Ba Be because the quality of shrimp can't be found anywhere else. Many people have studied our recipe in different parts of the country but they fail because their shrimp are not the same quality as ours,” Noong said.
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