“As a lotus flower is born in water, grows in water and rises out of water to stand above it unsoiled, so I, born in the world, raised in the world having overcome the world, live unsoiled by the world
To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom, and keep our mind strong and clear. Water surrounds the lotus flower, but does not wet its petals.”
The Buddha -- Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Agarwood - Trầm Hương

I first heard about agarwood when i listened to David Crow, founder of Floracopeia, talked about 'The 10 Virtues of Incense'. Agarwood is the the aromatic resinous wood created by diseased Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees. In Việt Nam agarwood is called Trầm or Kỳ Nam, an ingredient used in high quality incense.

In reading about agarwood i was so intrigued and wanted to know how the fragrance was. So when i saw Floracopeia offered the agarwood chips, after some internal struggle because of the high price, i decided to get some. The wood chips came in a white satin pouch and they don't look that impressive.

I did not use it right away because it needs to be heated up for the aroma to be released. To heat the wood, i use a ceramic bowl filled with ash, and heat a small piece of incense charcoal. The piece of charcoal was put in the ash, a thin mica plate is then put on the charcoal, and finally a small wood chip is put on the hot mica plate. When i saw David Crow at the aromatherapy retreat he told me to use just a tiny bit of wood so the wood piece that i used was about 3/4 cm long and the width is about the same as a flat toothpick. If you look at the above picture, the piece that i used was about the size of the smallest wood chip at the bottom left corner.

As the wood heated up i became so excited to find out how the fragrance would be. After about five minutes i put my nose to the bowl rim and i started to notice a faint sweet smell. The fragrance gradually became more and more intense and i began to move my nose further away from the bowl and within an hour my living room was filled with the agarwood scent where the warm sweetness literally went into my nose and linger on my throat. This lasted a few hours and there was no smoke. I could not believe how a tiny little chip of wood could have such powerful fragrance and i realized that i could have used only half the amount. The burning of agarwood or aloeswood has been used in ceremonies of many cultures, religions, and the fragrance also has many therapeutic effects. It is supposed to help with meditation and i read that the Buddha even said “The aromatic fragrance of agar takes one to the stage of nirvana.” . Whether this is true or not i found the agarwood scent to be quite serene and calming. The fragrant is different from the agarwood incense. It's much thicker, sweeter, and more pleasant, imho, and the scent (no smoke) seems to rise straight up before it spreads out into the atmostphere. This is quite an amazing experience and i am glad to get hold of this precious wood.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Young sweet rice from Vòng village (Cốm Vòng)

I discovered this wonderfully delicious snack in 1994 when i went to Hà Nội for the first time and i have been hooked since. Again, like húng Láng, i've heard about it from my parents, grand-parents, and novels when i was growing up in the South and longed to try.

Cốm Vòng is only available around harvest time at the end of the year, meaning October, November. When in season it is usually sold by street vendors who carried it in two baskets connected by a long pole or in a basket on their side or on their head, or in a basket in the back of a bicycle. The steamed cốm is wrapped in fresh lotus leave. The best kind is called cốm (young sweet rice) lá me (tamarind leave). Why such a name? Simply because each tiny, flattened, light green young grain looks just like the tiny flat tamarind leave. When slowly chewed, the chewy cốm began to give out its sweetness and fragrance that reminded me of the beautiful rice paddies in the countryside. This special kind is hard to get and unless you know someone who cares about the quality. Most of the time the street vendor sold a lesser quality which is coarser and not as flavorful and wrapped in banana leave instead of lotus leave.

Eveytime i go back to Hà Nội around harvest time i always seek this delicate snack out and try to savor it as much as i could and also get some dry ones to bring back to the States so my mom could put it in the delicious chả cốm.

Sadly as the country become more industrialized, time consuming, hand-made delicacies like this are quickly disappearing. Vòng village is on the outskirt of Hà Nội so cốm Vòng also suffers the same fate as the fragrant húng Láng.

The herbs of Láng village

I've been back to Viet Name about 6,7 times since 1994 and everytime it seemed like the best cooked food i had was always at home of relatives or friends.

My mom has a cousin living in Hà Nội whom i called bác and his daughters are among the best cooks i've known ( besides my mom :-) ). Everytime i asked to have at least one dinner at his house.

The first time i had dinner at Bác L's house was in 1994. It was also the first time i went back to Việt Nam since leaving the country as a boat people in 1975. I was born in Saigon so it was also my first time in Hà Nội (will have a post on this city later). Bác L's house was quite small, there was no dinning room with table and chairs so we had the meal the 'traditional' way which basically sitting on chiếu which is like a Japanese tatami mat. The dishes were placed on a big round aluminum or copper tray and people would seat on the mat around the tray and all the food is shared. This style of seating could be problematic for those people with stiff joints or knee replacements.

Upon arrival i went into the tiny kitchen and asked if i could be of any help and immediately i was told to get back to the living room. Sometimes later one of my cousins (i called chị) brought over a tray full of food. She then put in front of me a bowl of bún măng ngan, one of my absolute favorite food, and i was immediately captured by it's intoxicating fragrant. Bún măng ngan is a noodle soup which contains broth made from chicken or pork bone, rice vemicelli (bún), dry and fresh bamboo (măng), and goose (ngan) meat which is similar but more gamy than duck. I can't help but asking what made the bún smell so good and i was told that the fragrant came from húng (herbs) Láng which were the herbs grown in the Láng village outside of Hà Nội. I've heard about the famous herbs from this village before when i was growing up in the South from my grand-parents and novels. Now i realize that the herbs really justified all the praises for them. The herbs, basil, cilantro, mint, rau răm ... could be grown anywhere but when grown in the village of Láng their aroma become much more pleasantly powerful despite the tiny leaves. It must be the soil, the water ... just like growng wine grape. Húng Láng is now on my list of amazing ingredients. Unfortunately as the country develops, the people of Láng no longer dedicate their land for growing herbs :-( ... the land, being so closed to the over-crowded Hà Nội became so valuable that the people began to build multi-level houses to rent out or make them into mini hotels. When i went back to Việt Nam in 1996, one of the taxi drivers that i frequently got the service from happened to be a foodie like me so we started talking about food and i told him about my love for húng Láng and immediately he told me that 'i have to take you to Láng to show you what is left of the herb gardens, there are only about 2 or 3 plots left and they would be gone the next time you return to Hà Nội'. He was right, the herbs of Láng is gone and i could no longer have that perfumed bowl of bún măng ngan again.

Even though i could no longer have herbs from Láng village, the herbs in Việt Nam is still much more fragrant than the same kinds grown here which has huge leaves but no flavor most of the time.