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Rice and chicken: fun, fired up and flavourful

VietNamNet Bridge – Rice is not only the staple of Vietnamese diets, but also the major ingredient in many signature dishes.

Rice and chicken: fun, fired up and flavourful

Blended flavors: Before being grilled, the chicken is soaked in salt, herbs as well as ground mac khen grain (a type of pepper), chili and lemongrass. —VNA/VNS Photo Huong Vien

Besides the better known ubiquitous stir fried rice, the chicken rice of Hoi An Town and the rice cooked with coconut typical of the south, com lam is a feature of traditional festivals of several ethnic groups. These include the Tay, Dao, Muong, Nung, Thai in some northern mountain provinces like Cao Bang, Son La, Yen Bai, Lao Cai and Hoa Binh, as well as in the Central Highlands provinces. 

There is no official document indicating the origin of this dish. But based on its name, it is said to have originated in the Thai ethnic community of Viet Nam. In the Thai language, lam means "grill", indicating the cooking method. While lam in the Viet language means "green blue", a reference to the colour of the bamboo tube covering the dish.

It is said the ethnic people who lived in remote mountainous areas often went to the forest to gather wood for cooking or building houses. These long-distance trips could take several days, and the men would bring along rice, salt and a knife as basic necessities. As they also had to find a way of cooking without a pot people eventually discovered how to grill rice in a bamboo tube.

Locals would use young bamboo tubes, cutting out one side in which to place the sticky rice and add salt and water. The tubes are then rolled evenly in the fire. Before eating, people would peel off the green cover, which turned black after being grilled. By the smell from the rice tube or the color of the bamboo, the "cooks" would know whether the rice was ready to be served.

The bamboo tubes must be new and fresh so that when rice is cooked, the aroma of bamboo is well absorbed into rice grains. Rice bamboo can be cut into smaller tubes. The texture of rice is smooth, adequately sticky. Taking a bite of rice, diners also feel the taste of fresh bamboo engrained in rice.

This cooking method preserved the nutrients and aroma of sticky rice as the two sides of the tube were closed during the cooking process. Nowadays, ethnic people have developed dozens of variations of cơm lam, in which peanuts or bamboo shoots are added to the sticky rice.

Com lam is considered a healthy dish especially for pregnant and breastfeeding women. It is believed healthier for the mother’s milk than rice cooked in metal cookers.

Com lam can be served with grilled chicken or pork, yet some prefer it with muoi vung (minced roasted peanuts with ground sesame and salt) only.

Though the dish does not include meat, it provides a sufficient amount of glucid, lipid and protid with high nutritional value. Com lam can be used within seven days of preparation without spoiling. In wartime, ethnic people would offer this useful dish to soldiers. 

Grilled chicken

Besides com lam, ethnic people in some northern areas of Viet Nam also make other lam (grilled) dishes, including grilled fish, birds and vegetables.

Chicken raised in mountain areas are often known as "hill chicken" (free-range chicken) and they taste better than chicken grown in cages. One should not miss the chicken dishes when visiting these areas.

Before being grilled, the whole chicken is soaked in salt, herbs as well as ground mac khen grain (a type of pepper), chili and lemongrass. The seasonings and herbs placed inside the chicken are nicely blended with the flesh and boost its flavour. The aroma given off by the chicken cooked on the fire is mouthwatering.

Chicken is served with cham cheo, a typical dipping seasoning of the ethnic people, made of salt or fish sauce with ground lemongrass, lemon leaves, mac khen, garlic, chili and herbs.

What makes cham cheo so special is the mac khen, a fruit of the khen tree found in the forest. Khen fruit, with their strong pepper-like flavor, are dried, roasted and added to ethnic dishes. 

Rice and chicken: fun, fired up and flavourful

Nature’s pride: A com lam cooking contest held in Son Duong District in the northern province of Tuyen Quang. —VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan

Rice and chicken: fun, fired up and flavourful

Preserving nutrients: A local of Hoa Binh Province puts sticky rice into a bamboo tube. —VNS Photo Truong Vi

Rice and chicken: fun, fired up and flavourful

Good for pregnant women: Locals in Hoa Binh Province prepare bamboo tubes for com lam cooking. —VNS Photo Truong Vi

Hong Van