A seasonal product in the northern parts of Vietnam most commonly associated with autumn, green rice is the humble ingredient that is the base of many traditional Vietnamese dishes, such as bánh cốm (green rice cake mixed with mung beans). The rice’s green tinge is in fact all natural, a result of the rice kernels being in their young state, and can also attain a yellow demeanour if stir-fried long enough.
In the heart of one of the capital’s busiest districts lies an ancient trade village called Vong Village, that has been producing the sticky rice for generations, and still retains much of its rustic charm despite the near-constant expeditious construction occurring around it in recent years.
In search of the yellow-green rice roads I went, and ended up in the Cau Giay area. The district’s streets are often sprinkled with an eclectic mix of street vendors, some of whom have been selling green rice for decades, many sitting only a few metres from the production factories within Vong Village. Before the clutches of industrialisation fell upon the city, the whole of Cau Giay was in fact vast expanses of paddy fields, so it made sense to set up production factories nearby to harvest the green rice.
Kha, an ever-smiling 80 year old vendor with the budding energy of a teenager, has been selling green rice for over ten years at a mere VND20,000 per 100g, and explains that what was once a unified village has now been split into two by a highway, separating the more rural market part of Vong Village, and the residences of the rice producers.
It’s in Kha’s house where she demonstrates the mechanical system used to grind up the rice grains to achieve their sticky texture. Nowadays much of the machinery is automated, but in previous years it was hand-operated, characterised by a large-scale pestle and mortar in which the rice was poured into, and comically stomped on by any available family members at the time. It is then sifted through a bamboo sieve every 20 minutes until it achieves that perfect mushy texture. Due to progresses in the industry much of the hand-operated machinery is no longer in use, and there are only about five families that currently produce most of the green rice that is sold in the city.
Chatting to the other equally charismatic green rice vendors dotted around the nearby streets it seems that there are a handful of staple creations that are to be made with the sticky ingredient, each seller maintaining that their suggestion is the best way to eat it. Many of the vendors will keep the rice in a bamboo woven basket with a lid on it to maintain the freshness, and once they are ready to sell it, they’ll wrap it in two layers of leaves, the first being ráy leaf and the second a lotus leaf, preferably on the outer layer as its properties keep the heat in well, and could damage the rice if left in direct contact with it for too long. It is then packaged with the stems of the original rice grains in the form of a beautiful natural ribbon. For some, cốm (rice) is best eaten on it’s own in copious handfuls. More popular options include the Vietnamese sweet dessert called chè cốm or mixed in with flattened minced pork and deep-fried, known locally as chả cốm.
Despite the advances of the spinning urbanisation around it, Vong Village and it’s inhabitants are managing to maintain the spirit of a traditional food alive and well in their everyday lives.