2020, Jun. 8
The encounter with
Cơm Rượu Nếp Cẩm
The encounter with
Amazake lady in Vietnam.
Is it fate or just a trick of life encountering something fascinates you? It was in 2019, June 8th. I was walking beside the Hom market in Hanoi. The temperature was almost close to 40℃, and the humidity was more than 50%, without a doubt. I thought the whole city was having a hot Yoga event outside.
The Hom market is known as a fabric market, so if you go up to the 1st floor, you'll be astonished by piles of fabrics. People come here to look for materials for ao-Zai, traditional costumes, suits, and anything. And some order-made shops are also closed.
On the ground floor, there is a good selection of veggies, fruits, meat, fish, and household supplies.
I was passing the outside of the Hom market in a hurry.
'Fruits, veggies, fish, meat, and, a big red bucket? That's very strange!'
Because it's ordinary to sell things grouping by the categories, isn't it? The food is here, and the clothes are there. Nobody thinks of selling buckets next to foods. So, I was sure that there'll be some kind of food is in the red bucket. It can be something escaping, fermented veggies, or liquidy something. I walked closer to that bucket and the lady who was selling something inside the bucket and then I found that it was something made of rice.
The big amount of rice and some kind of liquid are in the bucket and they're producing a lovely sweet smell.
' Is this fermented? '
I asked the lady. It was more than 10 years ago when I lived in Hanoi and studied Vietnamese but I still am able to communicate with people in Vietnamese somehow. So, I tend to ask some questions without hesitating but most of the time my Vietnamese skill wasn't enough to understand the whole reply. However, it doesn't matter when it comes to fermented foods.
' Yes, you're right! You're a foreigner but you know it, huh!?' the lady replied me delightedly. And she gave me a little try of the ferment. I put it in my mouth a bit cautiously and found it's familiar to something. It tasted like Amazake but the slightly alcoholic taste was in it. The natural and mellow sweetness of rice brought me a lot of information.
The one I tasted was made of brown rice and she also had the kind of black rice. They both were glutinous rice.
' Well, do you eat them with yogurt by any chance?' I asked.
Then she replied to me ' You're right again! That is called sữa chua nếp cẩm.'
Sữa Chua Nếp Cẩm
A picture is worth a thousand words. Sữa chua nếp cẩm is a food like this in the photo below.
It's sweets made of sweetened and soft-cooked black glutinous rice and yogurt and people eat it with coconut milk, condensed milk, crush ices fruits or some other kind of sweets. I don't have these wonderful sweets in Japan and I always crave this taste in summer. It's absolutely healthy, delicious and wonderful desert.
In supermarkets and convenience stores in Hanoi sữa chua nếp cẩm has a space to settle and you can find some varieties. And some cafe and Che spots in Hanoi, it can be found with no effort.
However, please remember that sữa chua nếp cẩm has two kinds. One is cooked with sugar and not fermented, and the other one is fermented. Unfortunately, most of the sữa chua nếp cẩm in cafes and stores aren't the one which fermented so it's a very happy accident to come across the fermented glutinous rice which can make fermented sữa chua nếp cẩm!!!
I have been dreaming about this fermented glutinous rice for a while. Then finally, it appeared in front of me. Can you imagine how I'm happy? Being a ferments nerd, I couldn't stop asking more about this food.
Amazake made of
So, let's go back to the encounter at the Hom market. I asked the Amazake lady how she made the fermented glutinous rice and then learned that I needed to study Vietnamese more to understand her, but at least I found that she used this.
I was excited again to see this because I've seen this thing on Youtube when I searched about Vietnamese fermentation!!
In Japan, we use Koji as a starter for making alcohol. Koji in general, have pure Aspergillus Oryze culture growing on cooked grains for instance rice and oats. Then afterward yeast joins the brewing. The Japanese also use Koji for making Amazake similarly as making Sake but its process doesn't reach the part of producing alcohol.
On the other hand, other Asian countries ferment alcohol with something not familiar to the Japanese. In Vietnam, it's called bánh men. In China, it's called Qū (曲/ chhu). (I'm not knowledgeable on Chinese fermentation so let me write only about Vietnamese version. It probably very similar though I'm not sure yet.) Bánh men is like a dried bacteria mix. It has some useful bacterias in it and is made of raw grain flour with water. People make a kind of dough, put the last batch of bánh men, and then make an appropriate environment to grow or attract useful bacterias in it. When the bánh men is done it looks like a dried cake.
The Koji in Japan is made of cooked grains and the people dust spore of Aspergillus Oryze then make an appropriate environment to grow the culture on every grain. In Vietnam, there's also this type of Koji.
Both bánh men and Koji are like a starter of fermentation. However, the process of making is very different and the microbiota is also very different. Bánh men seem like a mix of various microorganisms. I need to say that please don't ask me about the specific names of the microorganisms because bánh men has diversity by regions, so as Qū.
And also my Vietnamese friend, who's also a ferments nerd, told me that there haven't been scientific profs of them yet. Moreover, some of the bánh men is produced by ethnic groups of Vietnam and its recipe is in their secret. ( I heard you need to go through their rituals to be trusted.)
However, according to some Japanese researchers and my amateur perspective, I may name the families of microorganisms. Bánh men has yeast, Rhizopus, Mucor, and Aspergillus. And probably lactic bacterias. There will be more or not but I don't know yet. What I've learned from bánh men was this mix is like a community of microorganisms. They cooperate with each other when the time comes. Isn't it amazing? We don't need to know what's in there but the tasty magic will start if we make a good environment for them. Oh, the holy ancient wisdom of food culture. I love it. So let me call it as a bacterial magic ball.
Anyway, let's talk about this another time and move on to next. My friend's mom showed me how this Vietnamese Amazake was made.
How to make
1. Cook black glutinous rice soft and cool it down.
2. Break the bánh men ngọt, the yeast cake for Amazake, into powder, dust it on the rice, and mix them well.
3. Let it sit for a day in a warm condition.
* The temperature in Hanoi was between 30 to 40℃ when I was there, and my friend's mom used two layered pots for this process.
In general, the people ferments 2-5 days but follow your intuition and taste. If you keep it fermented longer the taste becomes slightly alcoholic. This is the traditional way of making Hanoian Amazake.
How is it call in Hanoi?
I've been keeping calling this 'Vietnamese Amazake,' but it's actually very different from Japanese Amazake. Notably, the kinds of microorganisms that make the rice sweeter. So, please don't call it Amazake. I'll let you know the right name here.
This ferment is called cơm rượu nếp cẩm or rượu nếp cẩm in Hanoi.
cơm ＝ rice
rượu ＝ alcohol
nếp cẩm = black glutinous rice
（ Gạo nếp cẩm is actually the right word. Gạo nếp means usual glutinous rice. ）
The one made of usual glutinous rice is called cơm rượu nếp.
The sweets with yogurt are called sữa chua nếp cẩm. Sữa chua means yogurt.
I found out a few days later that I was in the right season of eatingcơm rượu nếp cẩm when I visited Hanoi this time.
The season of
cơm rượu nếp cẩm.
In Vietnam, the people follow the lunar calendar when they have traditional rituals or ceremonies. It's similar to China, Korea, and some Asian countries.
For example, the new year's day is celebrated mainly on the lunar calendar. It's called Tết. It's the annual most significant family ceremonial moment, and the people can take holidays to prepare and visiting their families and relatives.
The traditional ritual I've met this time was called Tết Đoan Ngọ. It's on May 5th of the lunar calendar. And also it's the day when the sun reaches the highest point and the day gets shorter from this day. Đoan means the beginning, and Ngọ implies the time of horse, which directs 11-13 o'clock and the south.
This culture has a strong influence on China, but how the Vietnamese spend this day is very different. This day is also called the day to kill bad insects. The bad insects indicate the harmful things in the stomach, the pests on the fields, and bad luck. So, for the health, the people eat lychees, apricots, and this fermented glutinous rice.
It seems like some Asian countries have their own way of spending this day. In Japan, on May 5th of the solar calendar, we eat a special rice cake, Kashiwamochi, and put Shyoubu herb in a bath. Isn't it fun to do a cultural exchange?
It's very lucky of me that I was in Hanoi on the special season and it's related to fermented food!!
A few days later, I visited the lady again in the Hom market. And this time, she had a big bottle of rice wine which was made of black glutinous rice. Of course, I tried it. The alcohol was very light and the sweetness is very balanced. I loved it.
If I lived in Hanoi, I may visit her every day. If you are in Hanoi, I encourage you to do it! Tết Đoan Ngọ in 2020 is June 25th. (It was June 6th in 2019)
Hom Market / Chợ Hôm
79 Huế, Ngô Thì Nhậm, Hai Bà Trưng,
Hà Nội, Vietnam
She was on Ngô Thì Nhậm street when I visited in 2019. You also can find some other people selling the same inside the market. The market opens from 6 am and closes at 6 pm but she said that if all sold she went back home. And I'm not sure if she's there whole year around. So, please have a visit to the market as a treasure hunting.