Mam tep, shrimp paste, and nem chua, fermented pork, may sound quite intimidating dishes, but don’t let the pungent smell prevent you from trying these interesting specialties of Ninh Binh Province.
While Ninh Binh’s nature and landscape are famous among travelers – with Hoa Lu, the country’s former capital, Trang An caves, world heritage Tam Coc Bich Dong limestone caves or the Van Long swamp Hollywood movie site, not many know nem chua and mam tep, the dishes that have been long associated with the lives of natives here.
Arriving in the village of Yen Mac, one is intrigued by a string of houses selling this dish.
Nem chua, fermented pork wrapped in banana leaf, looks very much like a greenish sausage. Opening the banana leaf emits a pleasing aroma of fermented pork blended with guava, generating homesickness among those raised in Ninh Binh.
Removing the greenish cover reveals the pinkish colour of pork with some shredded white skin.
The pork tastes a bit sour due to the fermentation process. It is served with dipping shrimp/ fish sauce, spiced with garlic and chilli.
Three other localities take pride in their fermented pork – the ancient city of Hue, Thanh Hoa and Phung (former Ha Tay Province). Each has a unique taste. Unlike the fermented pork of the central province of Thanh Hoa and Hue City, which is made of ground pork, Yen Mac fermented pork is made of sliced pork.
To make fermented pork, locals in Yen Mac take out the fat and slice the lean pork. The slices are then soaked with thinh (ground roasted rice) and wrapped in a cloth, which is squeezed remove any water left.
Sliced pork soaked with thinh and shredded pork skin are then seasoned with salt.
The amount of thinh and salt will decide the quality of the final product. If it is overseasoned, nem chua will be too sour, while lack of seasoning will prevent fermentation.
In summer, it takes one day to get pork fermented while in winter, it takes up to four days. Yen Mac fermented pork is dipped in fish/shrimp sauce and eaten with some leaves like fig leaves, mo (stinkvine) and dinh lang (polyscias fruticosa) leaves.
Locals in Yen Mac have a story about how the dish was born. It is said that in the Nguyen dynasty, a resident of Yen Mo Thuong Village named Pham Than Duat worked in the royal court. He had a daughter with a passion for cooking. Pham Thi Thu, seeing that drinking wine and eating Hue’s fermented pork was one of her father’s favourites, learned how to make this dish from the skillful chefs of the royal court.
When holding a party, this home-made fermented pork was a must for the father’s colleagues who were officials serving in the royal court. The dishes made by Thu were said to be even better than those served in the royal court.
When Thu came back her hometown in Ninh Binh, she passed down the know-how to Pham Xuy, a great grandson of Duat. Xuy then opened a fermented pork eatery near Cau But Market and gradually his reputation spread to other provinces. Officials would always order Xuy’s fermented pork for their parties. Tourists passing by would also drop in to buy it and take back home as a gift.
There is an old saying that goes like this:
Yen Mac dac san nem chua/ Tiec tung dinh dam thuong mua ve dung
“Fermented pork – Yen Mac’s specialty/ Small or big parties often had it.”
To be continued…