Travel Travel

18/01/2018 - 14:49

Mắm thính dưa gang

Mắm thính dưa gang (fermented fish with Asian pickling cucumber) tastes a little bit sour, tough and crisp, and of course, there are the typical smell of mắm, the fatty taste of corn, the hot taste of pepper and chili, and the aroma of oil, fried shallots and white onion leaves.

Many good dishes with Asian pickling cucumber best of which is mắm thính.

On lengthy rainy days, our place is like an oasis surrounded by water. The market is just across the river, but not many people go to the market. Neither does my Mom. But no worry. There is always a pot of mắm thính dưa gang, ready for the flooding season.

In order to have it ready for the season, Mom has to prepare everything from the summer. When the summer sun is at its best, cucumber plants grow up very fast, covering the whole hot shore. The full, round fruits expose themselves on the sand. They help relieve the scorching sun of the Central. Mom carries the cucumbers on her shoulder to the village market, never forgetting to save the best fruits for mắm thính dưa gang.

Mom says in order to have good thính dưa gang (fermented cucumber), choose the medium cucumbers, not too old, not too young. The full, round fruits, with short, thin hairs near the stem. Cucumbers are washed, dried in the sun, then put in a big jar, a layer of cucumbers, then a layer of salt. Depending on whether you want to keep it long or short, you can adjust the amount of salt. Fermented cucumbers can be processed into many delicious dishes best of which is mắm thính.

Mom often makes mắm thính dưa gang with fermented fish. On hot summer days, Mom buys fresh scads and let them ferment with salt in a jar.  After autumn comes winter, Mom runs to the neighbor buying some corn to make mắm thính. The jar is always divided into two compartments, one for fish, the other for layers of cucumbers.

Thính is very important. Mom always wants to make it herself. Thính is ready when corn turns yellow and smells good. It needs strength to pound the corn, so Dad often lends a helping hand. "Mom would not complain if I will eat more," Dad jokes. Mom sieves the corn for particles as tiny as broken rice. Done.

Mom takes fish and cucumbers out of the jar, squeeze out the juice, then put them into another jar. A layer of thính first at the bottom, then a layer of cucumbers, next comes a layer of fermented fish. Another layer of thính with pounded dried chili and some fresh chili. Grains of thính absorb the juice from fish and cucumbers. Dad runs to the garden, fetching a tube of bamboo, then makes a net to cover the jar. Just a few weeks later, good smell pervades the whole area. Fish and cucumbers turn shiny brown, covered with thính. 

In the jar of mắm thính, we like best the cucumber which is good-smelling, crisp, hot and salty. On rainy days, Mom does not need to go to the market. Just open the jar then we will have something to eat, fermented fish cooked slowly on a fire, or cooked with eggs, cucumbers cooked with oil, or pork.

Mắm thính dưa gang needs to be processed before eating. Cucumbers should be cut into bite-sized pieces. Pour some oil into a hot pan; add minced shallots and garlic and wait until they turn golden brown; add cucumbers, some monosodium glutamate and sugar. Before taking the pan off the fire, add some white onion leaves. The good smell pervades the kitchen.

On rainy, windy days many years ago, meat was scarce. Mom sometimes bought some pork and stir-fried it with mắm thính dưa gang. Both Mom and Dad ate mắm thính dưa gang and saved pork for their children. They did not know that we prefered sour, crisp, fatty cucumbers. As a result, at the end of the meal, pork came intact on the plate.

Story and photo: LINH CHI