I love my father’s hometown, a small village in the Red River Delta. A typical northern Vietnamese village, where the majority of its resident spend half of the year being farmers. The other half of the years, their jobs vary. From making noodles to bath towels. Some leave the village during the free time to work elsewhere, only to return just in time for harvest days.
I’m not a village girl, not at all. When I was little, my father struggled to send me back to his village every summer holiday. I used to hate the idea. But now, I can’t thank him enough for such a decision. The village, the people, the scent of rice paddy, the heat of summer, green fresh vegetables patch from my grandma’s garden, the beautiful taste of guava, the cold sweet black bean dessert… They are all part of me.
I return to the village from times to times, only to find that time has left its marks and changes are evident. Some people in the village still remembered me, as ‘K.’s daughter or Aunty Six’s granddaughter’. I don’t recall their names although I still recognise some, like Aunty Seven (Dì Bảy). ‘Seven’ is not her name. She is the 7th child of their family, so we call her so.
I have always wanted to write about the food of a Viet northern village. But where do I start? The food is so simple, and there is never a recipe. The philosophy is simplicity and local, fresh ingredients. Most villagers go to the wet market daily to gather their ingredients for the day – meat, tofu, fish, sauces and perhaps some vegetables they don’t grow. Vegetables are from the garden. And rice is from their own harvest.
With such produces and simple preparation, I find that most of country (or northern Vietnamese) dishes often highlight one-two main flavours. Say, like this gingery braised chicken dish, the warmth of ginger and white peppers are dominant. We may use other spices, too, but only sparingly.
And of course, we love our fish sauce so it is one of the key ingredients in this dish. Choose your fish sauce wisely – it’s like olive oil. Good fish sauce has light ‘fishy’ aroma and sweet note. It adds such complexity of flavours to the chicken. I, however, find that not everyone is a fish sauce fanatic like us. In such case, feel free to substitute it with soy sauce.
Traditionally, chicken pieces are used to make the dish. I have opted for chicken wings and winglets since I’m too lazy to chop the whole chicken. Serve this with steamed rice and plenty of steamed vegetables. They go wonderfully together.
Vietnamese gingery chicken wings (gà rang gừng)
The key to this dish is fish sauce. Adjust the level of seasoning based on the flavours of your sauce. I recommend Three Crab brand (more here). And go bold with white pepper! If you like, lemongrass can also be added.
500-600g chicken wings or winglets, cleaned
1 fresh chilli, sliced
5cm-piece of ginger, skinned and thinly sliced
1/8 (more or less)cup good quality fish sauce (or light soy sauce)
Lots of freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoons sugar (to taste)
Marinade the chicken with fish sauce, ginger, chilli, ground pepper and salt for at least 30 minutes.
Heat the oil in a sauce pan over medium hear and add in the chicken. Stir occasionally, make sure that you won’t burn the meat.
As the chicken get just cooked and slightly brown, put in the sugar. You want the meat to be lightly brown while the dish is still saucy. Add in ½ cup of hot water. Continue to simmer slowly until the chicken is fully cooked and flavoursome (around 15 minutes).
Check seasoning. The final flavours should be gingery and peppery. Serve hot with rice and steamed vegetables.