Life Life

14/06/2017 - 09:05

Tiny mussels

At 2 am, mussel suppliers’storesopened. At 3am, many people from musselricestalls, restaurants, and mussel retailers from the markets ... came to take the goods.The neighborhood was in a boisterous brouhaha of laughing, talking and washing mussels.About 6 am, the hubbub came down andgave the quietback to the small village in the lower Huong river…

Mussel rice is beautifully presented

Two hundred-year-old mussel business ...

With a gentle face and asofthumble voice, Mr. Chau Khac Hue, owner of the most famous mussel supplier’sstore at Hen islet, said that he had been doing this job as the forth generationof his family. Although the job didn’t bring him wealth,it gave his family a comfortable life. All of his 5 childrenhad good education and decent jobs. His youngest son and daughterwere studentsmajoring in pedagogy. In November 1999, his house had beendrifted away by a huge flood. His new house was then constructed furtherbackwards on Hen islet –his birthplace and also a place inseparable from his occupation.

Hen islet is a small island located in the lower Huong river. According to Feng Shui concepts, the islet is considered the Left Dragon of Hue’s Imperial City. In the book named “O Chau Can Luc” (which means the recent records of O Chau region) byDuong Van An, Hen islet was described as "a beautiful island". Originally, it was known as Soi islet (“Soi” in Vietnamese means “to flash light”). This name probably derived from the fact that local fishermen caught fish and shrimp in the light of a torch at night,and by day they moored their boatshere to take a rest. Later, it was renamed “Hen islet”. Some people say that this name stems from the shape of the islet, which looksfrom above like “amussel”. Others think that the islet has its namebecause local people here live on mussels, and they name theirplace after their occupation. Another postulation is that this name might have existed before, andwhen looking the islet from the mountain some people just imagined it had a mussel-like shape.

As regards the mussel business, locals on Hen islet believe that their business started two hundred years ago in King Gia Long’s reign,by a woman whose family name wasHuynh. A storyhas it that Mrs. Huynh and her husband were very poor. The husband diligently went fishingday and night, and the wife stayed at home to take care of their children. To find more food for the family, the wife went to the river bank to catch mussels. Later, as she caught alot, she began to sell them. Hue people became familiar with a new rustic and cheap dishfrom their home river. Other womenand even menstarted to follow her. At first, they caught by hands, and then theymade dredgesto easily catch more mussels. In King Thieu Tri’s reign, mussles were sold in all markets in the royal capital of Hueand  became many people’s favorite food. A chef offered the king this popular dish. King Thieu Tri enjoyed and highly praised it. When he asked about the origin of the food and knew that mussel business was really hard and laborious, he issued a decree on tax exemption for mussel business.

The shore area surrounding Hen isletwas also known as the habitat of different types of shellfish. However, that wasin the past, when people caught mussels by hands or bywide-toothedbamboo dredges and wide-meshed nets. Accordingly, they caught only adult mussels, sparing the baby ones to thrive. Then, since anincrease in demand of mussels, fishermen have turned tonarrow-meshed plastic nets, andall types of mussels from adult to baby are harvested. Moreover, due to the improved irrigation system, salt water has no more flowedinto the river as before, and the habitatof mussels has beendisturbed. Mussels at Hen islet are becoming rarer and rarer. "In the past, eachmussel supplier’s storeusually had a team of seven people catchingmussels daily. In the recent 6 or 7 years, due to the decreased harvest oflocal mussels, mussel storeshave to purchase mussels from other regions,"Mr. and Mrs. Chau Khac Hue said.

Mussels are shipped partly from Phong Dien, but mainly from Quang Triand Khanh Hoa.Mr. Huesaid that he must actively look for new suppliers when the supply from the old ones became precarious. At present there are about 10 suppliers’ stores at Hen islet. Each day, a truck is seen to transport mussels from other regions. Thereareabout 3-5 tons /day. Because musselsare not only caught in the Huong river, but most of them are also "imported" now, Hue locals and visitors can enjoy mussel riceyear-round,  not having to suppress their crave for their favorite food in the rainy and floodmonths as before. People doing mussel business don’t have  to  abstain from workingonLunar June 24th and 25th, which arereserved for commemoration of the mussel-business Creator.

Like many other professions, the mussel one also has the Day for Commemoration of its Creator. The anniverary is held annually onJune 24th and 25thin the Lunar calendar. At Hen islet, there now still exits theCreator-worshiptemple in Giang quarter, Hen ward. On the anniversary, the templeissolemnly decorated with lots of offeringsand incense. On Lunar June 25th which is the mainday of commemoration, the Master of ceremony standsin front of the altar set on a boat called the business-worship boat. On the altar there stands the business Creator’s Royal License whichhasbeen preserved in the temple ofthe Huynh – the family that gave birth to mussel business. The boat runs around Hen islet to welcome the Creator; the participants then parade to the temple and celebrate the ceremony. In the past, the boat used to run down to the Sinh three-way intersection and then around Hen islet; however, the procession is simplified now. After the ceremony, the Royal License is solemnly returned to the temple ofthe Huynh family. Although no longer having two days off as before, on Lunar June 24th and 25thannually,local mussel business people still celebrate the anniversary with all of their respect.

Do not look down upon tiny mussels...

With mussels, a variety of dishescan be made, for instance: soup, porridge,stir-fried, mixed with pancakes ...; and the most famous dish is mussel rice. This is anexclusive specialty. Almost every Hue native, nicknamed “mệ”, is in love with it. People from other provinces also cravethis dish when they just hear its name.

According to Hue people, mussel rice is the most popularof all popular dishes. As a Royal Capital, Hue of the past had a reputation of being elegant or posh ; yet, the locals wereunwealthy, and they would eat their left-over cooked rice. The rice left over from the previous meal was not only cold but also little. Therefore, the locals “mệ” meticulously invented the dish, enriching the little left-over rice with a variety of vegetables to get full. Some mussels were added to make the dish eye-catching, and of course, to provide a little protein. Also, a lot of chillis served to “cheat the tongue" (as described in a poemby poet Nguyen Khoa Diem). In this way, the dish incidentally created by “mệ” has become a specialty since then. How amazing it is.

In the past, mussel rice was sold by street vendors who served their customers from house to house. Or pedestrians could stop a vendor who then would  lend them low stools for them to sit on and eat some bowls of mussel rice. After getting paid, the vendor kept going on her way. Nowadays,there are still mussel-rice vendors, but not as many as before.Instead, mussel rice issold in restaurants well furnished with tables and chairs. There are also newly-created variants of mussel dishes such as mussel noodle, mussel instant noodle, mussel soup ... in spite of which, mussel rice is still the main dish. Nothing can replace the traditional way of flavoring mussel rice with “original” spices such as chillis, shrimp paste, fried peanuts, pork greaves and vegetables ...;the more “original” and traditional the flavoring remains, the more customers restaurants have. In addition to the famous Hen islet, now Truong Dinh street and Pham Hong Thai street arealso considered"mussel rice center" of Hue. Every morning, especially on Saturday and Sunday, so many people go to eat mussel rice. It is then a bit of a sweat to wait and buy a bowl of mussel rice.

Mussel rice is famous not only for being delicious but also cheap, incredibly cheap. I just remember the moment when I invited a priest from a church in Sai Gon-Cho Lon areato breakfast. The strange mussel rice immediately conquered my guest. He enjoyed 3 bowls, but seemed not to be full enough. I invitedhim to have some more, but out of politeness, and perhaps for fear that it would cost me a lot, the guest refused. When he saw me pay 9 thousandVND for 3 bowls (at that time, one bowl cost 3 thousand VND), he could not understand why it was so cheap. To his surprise, why was theresuch an incredibly cheap but delicious dish? Now, at the same restaurant where I invited the guest, the price of mussel rice has increased, but one bowl costs just one thousand  VND extra. The quality is still maintained, and still captivating manypeople. Recently, my colleague, journalist Hoang Giang and I have had the opportunity to meet a wealthy, beautiful businesswoman from the other side of Hai Van mountain pass. When she was introduced to some Hue journalists, she blurted out: "Visiting Hue, I don’t want anyone to...... invite me to breakfast. Why so? Just for me to go to Truong Dinh street to have as much mussel rice as I can.” Tiny and cheap as mussels are, who dares to say that they don’t make any contribution to Hue? ...

By Dien Thong