Enjoy “leaves festival” at Kon Tum

Thứ bảy, 03/12/2016 12:03

With some sliced pork belly, Bi (small sliced pork skin mixed roasted rice powder), and a bit of sautéed shrimps, the meeting of two ex-Truong Son soldiers was still fierily enthusiastic; and the “party of leaves” carried on their good old days.

Kon Tum, according to Ba Na minority’s language, means “village near a lake”, and yes, I was standing in front of deep blue, serene Dak Bla river flowing around gentle Kon Tum city.

Dak Bla river is totally different from most of other rives in Viet Nam. Usually, rivers are originated from various places but since they flow into territory of Vietnam, they will find their ways to Pacific ocean. However, Dak Bla frees himself against the general trajectory, flows into Cambodia then merge to Mekong river to the ocean.

Local people have called it as “river that eats human beings” since Dak Bla can destroy everything on its fury way but at that moment, all I saw was just a gentle peaceful river embracing a romantic town. Along river bank to the city were corn and sugarcane fields.

Across Dak Bla river is Kon Klor suspension bridge. Standing on Kon Klor we could see the whole spectacular Dak Bla, even at night with a dangling full moon above.

I loved quiet musing streets of this village, I love contemplating lively wooden statues in Mang Den forest (Kon Plong village) which described natural daily lives of local people, such as one blowing an Olifant, a mom carrying her baby on her back, pestling grains, carrying water, pregnant women, a man muffled by a python, beautiful human bodies, and human beings intercourses. Those were the whole primitive inner world of Highland natives.

Kon Tum might be a memorial place for many visitors even it is just a quiet tiny town. Simply the town has its own specialties, such as “leaves festival”.

Wild leaves party.

This is a name of featured dish, which exactly is a leaves salad. Kon Tum people explained, “many people gather to have leaves together then we call it leaves festival”. We could find this salad anywhere in Middle Highland but it originated in Kon Tum.

There were several stories of Leaves party’s origin. One of those is that natives have eaten edible wild leaves with their own meat or fish on the way to work, not only to feed the stomach but also to use up their natural medicine.

However, another version is that this dish was first served at Mr. Le Van Nhon’s family around 1975 when he had an ex-colleague visiting from the North.

Wild leaves.

Mr. Nhon made up his mind to treat his friend a “leaves meal”, which all leaves from his backyard, such as mango-pine (Barringtonia acutangula), Sam Dat (Boerhavia diffusa), Hong Ngoc (Medinilla cummingii), Mo (Paederia lanuginosa), green mustard, guava, Dinh Lang (Polyscias fruticosa), fig, Piper lolot, Tram (Syzygium cumini), Ma De (Plantago major), Dap Ca (Houttuynia cordata), basil, mint, Thuyen Dat (Syzygium polyanthum), purple Nganh Nganh (Cratoxylum cochinchinense), sour leaves, monkey leaves (Pseuderanthemum palatiferum), purple E ( Occimum gratissimum), sesame, Kim Cang, Choi Moi (Antidesma ghaesembilla Gaertn), buffalo tongue (Pentaphragmataceae), Ngai Cuu (Artemisia vulgaris), Tho Phuc Linh (Talinum paniculatum), ginger, Luoc Vang (Callisia fragrans), Ngu Gia Bi (Schefflera heptaphylla), dandelion, and bird peppers.

With some sliced pork belly, Bi (small sliced pork skin mixed roasted rice powder), and a bit of sautéed shrimps, the meeting of two ex-Truong Son soldiers was still fierily enthusiastic; and the “party of leaves” carried on their good old days.

His friend had left but his dish has stayed with him till now. After several times making this assorted leaves salads, Mr. Nhon was confident to open a small restaurant in 1995 to serve this dish.

Other people said that Mr. Le Van Lam (Dinh Tien Hoang street, Kon Tum province) was the first one who created and sold this assorted leaves salad. Mr. Lam originally had assorted wild leaves rolls in Tay Ninh province then he had varied the recipe with pork and shrimp to bear Kon Tum salad.

I had arrived Kon Tum in rainy season. My friend took my out to the forest to prepare assorted leaves salad ourselves. He said that we had to seek and understand to collect wild leaves, meaning we must know which leaves are edible and which we should avoid.

We went along a stream until noon and had a pocketful of over 30 wild leaves. When I was cleaning the leaves, my friend had cooked other ingredients, such as pork belly, pork skin, snakehead fish (Channa maculate), and shrimps. He said other places used many more ingredients like dried seafood, chopping them all then stir-frying with seasonings.

My friend preferred his own style with all fresh meat and seafood so that we could use dipping to taste. Dipping, depending on each style, can be hot sauce, E salt, or a mixture of chopped shrimps, pork, seasonings, fermented rice, and oil.

He gave me a small glass of alcohol, saying, “Take a sip for your stomach. These are nice leaves, but just in case.” I asked him why not use beer instead of wine, he smiled and explained, “Beer is from raw yeast. Having leaves and raw yeast is not a good combination.”

Rolling leaves salad.

We picked a leaf of each kind, the bigger first then the smaller, rolled the whole stack into a funnel, filled it up with meat and seafood then just enjoyed. A mixture of heat, sourness, acridness, bitterness, and spiciness from wild leaves blending with sweet shrimps, fatty pork, and salted dipping created a whole highlands’ flavors bursting on the tongue. The leaves party got more robust with Dinh Lang root soaked in rice wine.

Even though the assorted leaves salad has been elevated to be on restaurant menu, it is displayed just as the same as the original slaver, which all leaves are placed on a big slaver while meat and seafood are at the center so that everyone can sit around and enjoy the dish.

Having leaves salad to know Middle Highlands, to understand how Highlands people treat stomach-ache, high blood pressure, and urolithiaris by wild leaves.

No matter what the origin of this dish was from the natives, Mr. Nhon, Mr. Lam, or anyone else, definitely it came from Kon Tum province then spread all over Middle Highlands and other provinces. Without fire or wild meat, assorted leaves salad is still dish of forests.

When I left Kon Tum, my friend handed me a package of all leaves wrapped in banana leaves as a gift of highlands. He said, “The forests just have leaves to give out.” Yes, they just need those leaves to express their spirits, and to make unforgettable memories for visitors.

By V.H/Dantri

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