For the Ê Đê people, no meal is really complete without a fruit that is a rare ingredient in other cuisines – cà đắng – bitter eggplant.
|Ribbing it in: Soup made with bitter eggplant and young pig’s ribs.-Photo cooky.vn|
For something that tastes bitter to be a constant in most dishes, the chefs have to be creative, and the Ê Đê have shown that they have this quality aplenty, given the number of delicious dishes that use this fruit – like dried fish brined with bitter eggplant or ground bitter eggplant.
For the Ê Đê, it is not just a matter of taste: while the bitterness makes the dishes more appetizing, the fruit also boosts the immune system and prevents iillness.
The bitter eggplant grows will and abundant on mountainsides and at the foot of mountains. The plant has small thorns on its body and leaves, with attractive, small purple flowers. The fruit is small, round and…you guessed it, bitter.
However, its popularity has taken this plant from mountainous wilderness to the gardens of both Ê Đê and Kinh people, who now cultivate it as a favoured vegetable.
The secret to Ê Đê bitter eggplant recipes is simplicity.
“The fruit can be cut into two or four pieces which will then be soaked in salt water. The eggplants are particularly bitter so they can also be scalded with hot water to alleviate its bitterness,” said H Linh Niê, a chef from Yang Sing Restaurant in Buôn Ma Thuột City.
At first, the bitterness of the fruits might be unpleasant, but this is compensated by its special flavour and buttery taste. Gourmets enjoy the sweet aftertaste that lingers on the palate.
One of the most popular dishes in the Central Highlands is ground bitter eggplant, which is a mixture of fresh ingredients and spices. There is no Ê Đê man, woman or child, who does not enjoy this dish. The spiciness of peppers, sourness of limes, the distinct aroma of some herbs and the bitter eggplant make for a mouthwatering combination.
Better still, this is a simple dish that can be made in quick time. The eggplants are cut into small pieces, and a piece of lime, some pepper and cilantro are added. These are washed, put into a bamboo section and ground.
The addition of ắc leaves gives this dish its most distinctive flavour. Spicy and sour, the ground bitter eggplants can be eaten with rice.
“The main taste of this dish is both spicy and bitter, but not overly so. Customers will not like it if the dish is too bitter,” said H Lenna Byă, a local chef in Akô Dhông Village.
Initially, the bitter eggplant was cooked mainly with dried fish, but it has since begun to accompany many other meats, including pork, beef, frog, eel and snail. Some local cooks make a soup with bitter eggplant, chicken organs, dried fish and canned meat.
One of the most delicious dishes made with bitter eggplant is with beef tripe. This is said to carry the authentic flavour of the Central Highlands, with some gourmets arguing that it is only when people begin to sweat from the spiciness of the dish that that they have “touched” the Central Highlands’ culinary culture.
“I have had the chance to try bitter eggplant dishes cooked by the locals many times,” said Vũ Hoàng Anh of Buôn Ma Thuột City. “They are uniquely delicious.”
In keeping with the times, the Ê Đê have begun using “new” ingredients and modern cooking methods into their food culture, but the bitter eggplants are still central to their cuisine.
Many people have compared bitter eggplant to coffee, bitter at first, addictive later.
The good news is that these dishes are not just served within local families these days; the fruit has been added to the menus of many restaurants and become an attraction to many visitors wishing to taste the authentic flavours of Việt Nam’s Central Highland cuisine.