Snake Banquets and Other Northern Specialties

Part of the adventure of traveling is culinary. Every country has its own distinctive cuisine. The basic ingredients—meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, grains, etc--might be similar to those of other countries, likewise the preparation—fried, grilled, boiled, stewed and so on, but some dishes will be unique, something not eaten elsewhere or served in a special style. Within a single country, too, the food may differ from one region to the next, replete with local specialties not on offer anywhere else in the same nation. Vietnam is a typical example.

In the North, menus offer the usual items common to the rest of the country, but these may be augmented by local specialties. Deer and boar meat dishes are common in towns in the mountains or near forest tracts, squirrel in Tam Đảo and sturgeon in Sa Pa (from fish farms in the nearby hills). In Hanoi, eel dishes are popular; fried on an iron grill, stewed in a pot or cooked in a mild curry with banana and tofu. Several places offer rabbit, a Gia Lâm restaurant specializes in goose dishes and one in Đống Đa district serves turtle.

Besides these special dishes, the northern culinary taste extends to cats and dogs. Eating cat became a fad early this century and specialty restaurants sprang up all over the Red River Delta. Rural folks began capturing stray cats to sell to the restaurants. As a result the rat population multiplied and devastated the crops. The authorities closed down most of the cat restaurants.

No such strictures applied to the dog specialty restaurants, though, and they still thrive, both in the cities and the countryside. People here consider dog meat good for the health and an aid to fertility. Traditionally, however, you are only supposed to consume it during the waning days of the lunar month, from after full moon until new moon.

For snacks, Hanoi residents might head for one of the alleyway stalls with a couple of small tables and stools for a bowl of snails, extracting the meat with a toothpick and dipping it into a mixture of lemon juice, salt and black pepper. Or they might choose one offering trưng vịt lợn (duck embryo), still in its shell and eaten with a metal teaspoon, with the same seasoning.

Among the many craft and specialty villages in the North, three near Hanoi are famous for their particular food. 15 km south of Hanoi, Quán Gánh village produces the slightly glutinous rice pancake with green bean filler known as bánh dày. Vọng village, in Hanoi’s Cầu Giấy district, has for a thousand years been noted for a preparation of young glutinous rice, still green, soft, sweet and fragrant, called cốm, and sold wrapped in lotus leaves. It’s far more expensive than ordinary sticky rice, but connoisseurs don’t mind.

The other, and most renowned food specialty village is Lệ Mất, in Gia Lâm district, 7 km east of the Chương Dương Bridge. The village raises snakes, both for export to China and for local consumption in one of the dozens of elegant village restaurants, popular with groups of middle class Hanoi residents. The banquet experience usually begins with a chef coming to the diners’ table to show off the cobra or whatever snake it is that will be their meal.

Cooks prepare ten to twelve different snake meat dishes, even one of grilled skin. The meal also includes rice liquor mixed with snake gall or blood and liquor steeped with cobra over a long period. The first pre-dinner drink is the liquor mixed with snake blood. One customer, usually the one having such a meal for the first time, will get the little cobra heart in the glass. It’s considered a test of fortitude to swallow this heart without flinching. Next comes the liquor mixed with gall, thought to be beneficial for the health. And with these consumed the snake dishes begin to arrive and diners commence the exotic experience of a banquet in Lệ Mật, home of the North’s tastiest snakes.

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