Life Life

10/06/2020 - 07:41

Oatmeal wrapped in wild betel leaves, a vegetarian dish of continuity

There is always something worth mentioning about Hue when people talk about this city. For food enthusiasts, the city is a must-visit destination for vegetarian dishes.

From simple to gourmet, local vegetarian dishes still fully bear Hue characteristics. Although every now and then I stop by vegetarian restaurants and street stalls for a healthy treat, to me, true vegetarian culinary arts of Hue start from an originally and purely “Hue” friend of mine.

Oatmeal wrapped in wild betel leaves has a glutinous, buttery texture, and a fresh, fragrant flavor

"If all dishes were this delicious, I could go vegan my whole life." I said as she treated me to an intimate meal with new vegetarian dishes; among which, the leaf-wrapped oatmeal was the most striking. My eyes widened in astonishment at this combination.

We got to know each other on a vegetarian forum, and she promised to cook me some vegetarian dishes if I visited Hue. She was an active member of our vegetarian community with several tips on how to make vegetarian food more delicious and pleasant looking. Then I headed to Hue to meet her and to feel the peaceful energy from a true vegetarian.

She was the eldest daughter-in-law of a royal family in Hue. Her poise and manner, from walking to talking and cooking, still retained the renowned "gracefulness in contemplation" inside every Hue girl.

Her family stuck to a relatively strict vegetarian diet, especially on the full moon day and the first day of each lunar month. For the rest of the month, the menu could be more flexible with the addition of “the five pungent spices” such as onions, garlic, chives, and scallions.

I came by on such a “flexible” day, so luckily, I had the opportunity to try an absolutely marvelous vegetarian dish - oatmeal wrapped in wild betel leaves.

The combination was a complete mindblower. Because oatmeal is originally an imported cereal, this dish was by no means a traditional vegetarian recipe but a product of improvisation. She has continued her mother and aunties’ yesterday secrets.

Although betel leaves are commonly found in vegetarian recipes, such as tofu or tofu skin parcels, leaf-wrapped oatmeal was a complete novelty.

The recipe subtly blended the distinct fragrance of betel leaves and the freshness of buttery and pasty oatmeal.

The preparation was pretty simple with three main ingredients: oatmeal, betel leaves, and onion, seasoned with salt, vegetarian fish sauce and ground pepper.

First, add some water to oatmeal to form a soft and thick mixture. Toss well with diced onion and season with salt, vegetarian sauce, and some ground pepper to taste. I joined my friend in the last cooking step: wrapping betel leaves over ready-made fillings and panfry the rolls.

Simple as it may seem, I found using betel leaves as wrappers was no easy task. I was quite good with my hands in craft making, but still baffled at how to make tight and same-sized wraps that did not fall apart like my friend did.

She explained that the natural buttery flavor of oatmeal could make several enthralling dishes. Besides, onion added the natural sweetness and the scent of betel leaves easily mesmerized everyone. 

A winning combination of ingredients is an alternative to limit the use of unhealthy chemical spices in cooking. My friend thus often treats vegetarian newbies to this dish because it is alluring in every way.

Oatmeal wrapped in betel leaves is indeed a dish of continuity, of the fusion between tradition and modernity, the East and the West, between non- and vegetarian dishes. It is definitely a starter to convince new vegetarians.

The dish reflects my friend’s wish to continue her exploration journey with vegetables to create appetizing dishes and spread serenity to everyone. Thanks to her, now I know why people came to Hue for a vegetarian treat.

Story and photo: Yen Thuong