VietNamNet Bridge – During my recent trip to the northwestern province of Dien Bien, I was blown away by the unique flavour of mac khen (the Thai ethnic group’s wild pepper) in dishes such as ga nuong (grilled chicken).
Smell the flavour: Mac khen is a key spice for Thai ethnicity people. — Photos monngondienbien.vn
When we arrived at Noong Chun Village, Lo Thi Dinh, a local woman who is an owner of a homestay, said since her village became a tourist destination in 2004, visitors have enjoyed the traditional flavours of the Thai.
She was right. The smell of fragrant flavours led us to a wooden charcoal oven of gà nướng mắc khén, which was turning light red and yellow.
None of us had smelled such a flavour before, with a sweet and hot smell that captivated the nose.
Cooking up a storm: Grilling ga nuong mac khen.
Dinh told us the flavour is from mac khen pepper.
She said the fresh fruits are similar to the pepper. The mac khen tree grows up to 18m tall in mountains from 500-1,500m above sea level.
“Thai people get the fruits from the forests and hang them in the upstairs kitchen to dry and use it year round,” Dinh told us, noting it looks like pepper but the fruit is less hot and is lightly fragrant.
Mac khen is also used for braising and frying dishes as well as for bowls of sauce.
“It is the essential spice of Thai people. As it carries a natural flavour, it also makes visitors and travellers addicted to it,” Dinh said.
Dig in: The aromatic flavours of ga nuong mac khen dips with cham cheo are tasty.
After telling us about the fruits, Dinh brought us a big plate of grilled chicken soaked with mac khen.
The dish was so delicious that it made my mouth water. The grilled chicken had yellow skin, and the fragrant, sweet and rich flavours of mac khen, gingers, chilli and lemongrass.
Dinh told us that to make such a dish, she had to choose a young chicken weighing 1.2-1.4kg mixed with five spoonfuls of mac khen powder, lemongrass, chilli and salt. It is eaten with coriander, dill and sweet basil.
After two hours, the chicken should be grilled over wood charcoal and turned until it is well cooked, Dinh said, noting that the second way is wrapping the chicken in four rounds of banana leaves or dong (a kind of wild leaf). The chicken is tied carefully before being buried under fire for half an hour.
“Don’t worry, the chicken will not be burned but become more tasty with aromatic flavour compared with the first way,” she said.
Saucy stuff: Mac Khen fruits of Thai ethic group are used to make cham cheo, a Thai sauce.
The dish is eaten with cham cheo (Thai sauce), a mix of lemongrass, garlic, fresh onion, mac khen, chilli and coriander.
This traditional sauce is always available in Thai people’s daily meals. Apart from a perfect sauce for gà nướng mắc khén, it can be used as a dip for boiled pork, chicken and vegetables, said Dinh.
On the next day of the trip, Dinh gave us pa pỉnh tộp with mac khen, or grilled stream fish soaked with the fruit powder.
The dish is not difficult to cook but must be made with stream fish and mac khen from the region, said Dinh, noting that Thai people use these dishes to welcome dear guests and visitors to the province.
Local herbalist Nong Van Hai said mac khen also helps increase resistance to diseases.
“I always encourage my neighbours to keep mac khen fruits or powder in their home as a traditional herb so that it will be ready to deal with common diseases,” Hai said.