Any gourmet worth his salt knows that side-dishes are crucial value additions to most meals, and some of them are so tasty that they are as important, if not more so, than the main dish.
Ca Phao – A part of Vietnamese cuisine
A great example of this is the salted ca phao (white, round eggplant), which makes a meal much more enjoyable for many people.
Apart from pickled eggplant, there are many dishes made with the vegetable, like salad ca phao, fried ca phao with beef, ca phao brine with soya sauce and even some ca phao medicine.
Phan Thi Nguyet, 65, a native of the central province of Nghe An, is admired and respected by locals for making the tastiest salted eggplant in the region.
The secret is how to retain the white colour and crispiness of the ca phao and its crispy after being salted, said Nguyet.
“I have to choose fresh and white vegetables and then dry them under a light sun for four hours before soaking them in warm salt water in a clay jar, and covering them with a round bamboo lattice. On this I place stones to press the lattice down, to prevent the pickled eggplants from turning brown, and to keep it crispy,” said Nguyet. The jar has to be kept at a clean and cool place for 5-7 days before the pickle can be consumed.
Nguyet said she uses much more salt than usual to ferment the ca phao and preserve it for a longer time.
She recalled that when the country was very poor during the wars and its aftermath, salted ca phao was the main daily food all year round for both civilians and soldiers, particularly in the central province.
She narrated a story: A young beautiful local girl had been captured by the French commanding officer of a post and forced to become his wife so that he could have a plate of pickled eggplants on his meal tray, everyday.
He found it so tasty that he stopped eating western dishes. He also became so addicted to the dish that once, when he was on duty far away from, he ordered his troops to find salted ca phao from local villagers, Nguyet said.
Herbalist Hoang Duy Tan of the National Hospital of Traditional Medicine said the dish can be used as a medicine to treat hemolytic anemia, inflammation, tuberculosis and other conditions. It can also be used as a diuretic or laxative, he said.
Ca phao is particularly effectively in treating blood-tinged stool, urinary problems, toothache, gingivitis and chronic cough, he added.
Ca Bat – A similarly attractive dish to Ca Phao
Tan told Vietnam News that apart from the pickled eggplants, his mother often buys ca bat (similar but bigger, green with white stripes), slices and dips them in shrimp paste. The food is eaten with perilla leaves and elsholtzia, commonly known as Vietnamese balm, or kinh gioi.
“We love its crispiness and saltiness, and the flavour of mam tom (fermented shrimp paste), but mother always said we should not have too much of it, because it can cause stomach pain,” Tan said.
Many villagers in his native place cut the ca bat and steam it in the rice cooker. When it is well done, they mix it with several condiments and spices. This helps retain the original flavor of the ca bat, but makes it more tasty and does not cause any ill effects, Tan added.
He said the Japanese also eat fresh ca bat, but they cut into pieces and marinate them in salt for three hours before mixing it with spices. They believe the dish helps remove toxins from the blood.
However, he warned that those with “cold blood” should be careful when eating ca phao or ca bat. If such a person craves it, he/she should eat them with garlic and chilli, he said. This dish is not good for sick or weak patients, including those suffering from glaucoma, and they should avoid it, he stressed.
However, pickled eggplant has been a part of Vietnamese cuisine for hundreds of years, and miss it a lot when they are out of the country. A folk song sums this up perfectly: anh di anh nho que nha, nho canh rau muong nho ca dam tuong (You went far away from your home, you miss the morning glory soup and pickled eggplants soaked in soya sauce).
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