The cuisine in southern Vietnam has a wide variety of grilled dishes, diverse in both ingredients and methods of preparation. Southerners grill all sorts of animals such as chickens, fish, crabs, mice, birds, frogs and snakes, using different methods to enhance the flavor of the dish such as grilling directly over an open fire (nuong trui), encasing the ingredients in clay, bamboo tubes or metal pots, grilling with coconut shell dippers and grilling without seasoning (nuong moi).
While each method brings out different flavors, all can mesmerize food fanatics. Following are two grilled dishes you must not miss when traveling through southern Vietnam.
Snakehead grilled with dry straws
Snakehead grilled with dry straws (ca loc nuong trui) is a rustic dish familiar to generations of southerners. Starting as a snack, the dish has been elevated to a specialty served in many southern provinces.
To make the dish, locals choose snakehead with firm flesh full of umami flavors caught fresh in rivers or bought in traditional markets. The pre-grilling preparation of the fish is fairly simple. They only need to lightly clean the fish with saltwater without scraping off the scales or taking out the internal organs, then slice a skewer through the fish, stick it on the ground and grill the fish over burning dry straws.
|Snakehead grilled with straws is served with fresh herbs and bun noodles in Con Son community-based tourism spot in Can Tho City. Photo: @copho.158/Instagram|
When the straws no longer burn, the fish is properly cooked. Locals use fresh banana leaves to remove the fish then scrape off the black burnt parts on the outside. The final product is a perfectly hot, golden brown, flavorful snakehead. To enjoy the dish, locals simply mix a dipping sauce made of chilly salt and lime juice and dip the flesh right in. In this way, they can retain the freshness and flavors of the flesh.
|Snakehead grilled over burning straws. Photo: Nguoi Do thi|
Snakehead grilled with dry straws can also be served by arranging it on lotus leaves and topping it with roasted peanuts, scallion oil, fresh bun noodles and a variety of vegetables and herbs such as cucumber, pineapple, lettuce, fish mint, crêpe ginger, basil or ambarella. Next, locals wrap the ingredients in rice papers softened in water and dip the roll in a sweet and sour fish sauce.
Grilled rice field mouse
Rice field mice grilled in a jar or over charcoal is another dish that you must not miss. The dish may not seem appealing to many for obvious reasons. Once having a taste of the dish, however, they can be immediately taken aback by the deliciousness of the dish. Some even prefer mouse meat over chicken.
|The Rice field mouse is grilled whole over charcoal. Photo: Ngoai Ty|
Rice field mouse is commonly sold in traditional markets in southern Vietnam, especially during the rice season. The sellers clean the mouse carefully before selling it, so when buying for home, locals only need to wash it again in freshwater, add seasonings such as lemongrass, salt, garlic and chili, then apply a thin layer of honey on the outside and grill the mouse until golden brown.
Grilled rice field mouse is served with cucumber, green banana, sour starfruit, sliced tomatoes, Thai basil and a mixture of salt, lime juice and ground pepper. Just one bite of the soft, flavorful meat is enough to drive away any initial fear of the animal.