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Second prize - Southern regional semi-final:

Blowing Middle Highland Spirit into “Golden Dishes”

Tuesday, 11/01/2016 13:18
“Middle Highlands’ spirit has influenced your whole menu”, said Deputy Director of HCMC Tourism, Guest Judge in southern semi-final round The Golden Spoon Contest 2016, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Anh Hoa.

1.I think you guys had a hard working test because of many reasons, like preparing your ingredients, processing your food, and because judges and reporters paid a little too much attention to your team. What makes this attraction? I think because you guys did have had an impressive style throughout the contest. There is no introduction on each team’s tag but people can guess that you guys are from Middle Highlands just by looking at your ingredients and cooking tools. Middle Highlands’ spirit has influenced your whole menu.”, delicately commented judge Anh Hoa in the southern semi-final round.


Chef Duc Hoang excitingly introduced wild ginger from Chu Mom Ray forest.

About an hour ago, so many of reporters had had interviewed team 45 – Gia Bao restaurant from Kon Tum province – that judge Anh Hoa had to lightly asked them to back off. Otherwise, chefs could not focus on their dishes while one hour had passed. With a little of reluctance, communiation staff had to stop asking althought they still had numerous questions about all strange-looking leaves and spices on team no.45’s table.

The second time being at The Golden Spoon semi-final round, Kon Tum chefs were so cool when bringing not only new spices but also particular cooking tools. Chef Nguyen Duc Hoang was strongly pestling salt seeds in a big mortar when reporter asked him how he brought this 2 meters pestle onto the bus. Stopping for a minute, he said, “I have to insist the driver. This heavy pestle is made from Ko-nia tree (wild almond or Irvingia malayana) - a must-have kitchen tool - and those mortar, pitchers, and containers are also nesscessary to show Middle Highlands’s spirit. We must keep them in a separate conner on the bus to keep them safe.” Chef Duc Hoang’s facebook timeline shows some clips recording his journeys looking for new spices in fields, which carried full of passionate and hardwork.


Chef Duc Hoang pestled salt seeds to cook with running chicken.

The 1st prize in Middle Highlands preliminary in Da Nang city was a sweet award of team no.45. They told an attractive story of their mountain-home town by great dishes. Being at semi-final round with the topic of “Golden Dishes” was a motivation but also a pressure on Kon Tum chefs.

Although they were busy cooking, chef Duc Hoang and his colleuages, Nguyen Quang Thanh and Nguyen Quang Huy, always took time to discuss and to share time looking for new ingredients. Their “golden dishes” were gradually being shaped. Once again, they took advantage at their regional products to create special dishes, as wild vegetables with Ly Son garlic taste; pearl barley (Job’s tear or Coix lacryma-jobi), pumpkin, and black tiger prawn soup; sautéed Pha with Chu Mom Ray wild ginger served with Highlands’ cereal wine; running chicken and salt seeds served with fresh rice noodles; and rice ball stuffed durian paste dessert.


Wild vegetables with Ly Son garlic taste; pearl barley, pumpkin, and black tiger prawn soup.

2. The appetizer’s idea started in chef Duc Hoang’s family. He simply said, “The idea of soup was from… my son. My wife is in medical field so she’s always busy at work. I usually make pumpkin and shrimp congee for my son. I took this recipe to the contest, just adding young pearl barley.” Another appetizer was all-about-vegetables, which were wild spicy mint leaves, aromatic fireweed (Crassocephalum crepidioides), and sweet wild leaves. Chefs only picked these vegetables’ tips then stir-fried them with Ly Son garlic, creating a smooth symphony of mountains and oceans.


Sautéed Pha with wild ginger from Chu Mom Ray forest in Highlands’ picth of cereal wine.

The next dish had revealed more about Kon Tum’s specialties named Sautéed Pha fish with wild ginger from Chu Mom Ray forest in Highlands’ pitch of cereal wine. Pha fish is an endemic species in Ba and Se San river, the two largest rivers in the north of Middle Highlands, and dainty food of local people for years but recently, this fish has “swum” to restaurants. When catching this rare fish, fishermen rather bring them home then sell them to restaurants. Pha fish looks similarly grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) but it has longer body, bigger scales, flat head, and 2 antennaes at 2 sides of its lips. Chef Quang Thanh said that it was kind of easy fishing these fish before but lately, they had become scarce since people had fish them everywhere because of their high value. The chefs had to pre-order a month before to purchase 1,200,000 vnd for Pha fish. Chef Quang Thanh admitted, “We are lucky since the contest is in October. People only can catch Pha fish in rainy season.”


Three members of team no.45 at The Golden Spoon 2016 kitchen kios.

Normally, local people cook Pha fish based on its parts, such as frying the body and make a hot pot out of the head and tail. When putting this dish to the Golden Dishes menu, team no.45’s chefs also put more effort varying it to an impressive new dish. They filleted fish, carefully took all bones out then marinated fish fillet in wild ginger juice from Chu Mom Ray preserved forest and other seasonings in half an hour then sautéed the fillet. The sauce was made from Highland cereal wine’s grain - a particular wine that is naturally fermented with secret recipe of Highland chiefs. Sautéed Pha fish was served with sweet & sour pickled wild bananas.


Salt fruits of Highland forests.

3. Salt fruits, a featured spicy fruits of Middle Highlands which had been used in preliminary (Grilled spiny eels in salt fruit sauce, served with five types of wild leaves) and helped Kon Tum chefs to win the 1st prize, appeared again on team no.45’s table. Our chefs wanted to use salt fruits again with a totally new roll, which was to link and to blend in their running chicken. Salt trees were blooming and bearing young fruits so Kon Tum chefs tried their best to bring a whole branch to the contest. Salt fruits’ life cycle was fully displayed by a bunch of white flowers and then red flowers, a bunch of young fruits, and ripe fruits. Definitely, reporters spent all megabytes of their memory cards to capture as many images of this plant as possible.


Running chicken and salt fruits served with fresh rice noodles.

Running chicken and salt fruits served with fresh rice noodles, this is a creative dish of the whole team. Highland chickens freely run and feed on natural products so their flesh is so firm and flavorful. Salt fruits were pestled, grinded then percolated to juice them out. Smashed fruits and other spices were used to marinated chicken in 15 minutes. Boil chicken in salt fruit juice in 25 minutes without seasonings because all featured salty and sourish flavors of salt fruits would be totally absorbed. This dish was served with fresh rice noodles.

Finally, the dessert also carried Middle Highlands’ spirit in which main tastes were durian and Chu Mom Ray ginger. Rice ball shells were colored by cochinchin gourd redness, the balls were stuffed by durian paste, and the broth was boiled with Chu Mom Ray ginger.


Rice balls stuffed durian paste.

Judge Anh Hoa generously gave compliments, “There are so many things to tell about your spices and we have really enjoyed. You have many feartured spices from regional leaves and fruits. Even though a familiar ingredient as Highland cereal pitch of wine was also creatively used to make sauce for the first time I’ve seen. Chu Mom Ray ginger is a spectacular spice with totally different taste. Redweed, mint leaves, and barley pearls have recalled the whole difficult period that definitely many of us had been through. I really appreciate that you guys have strictly followed the topic of this round and the main purpose of our contest, which is to elevate Vietnamese cuisine to higher level in intergration time.


2nd prized party table of Kon Tum chefs in southern semi-final round.

The judge slowly said, “I was a bit worried with your dishes’ quality since your ingredients and perfomances were so good yet so strange to tell. Actually, I did not disappoint at all. Even the acquainted rice ball dessert also was created in different ways and exotic tastes.

I hope you guys will keep your work up, playing with those interesting spices to create more new dishes. The more people know, the much futher your dishes will go. That is a good way to honor, to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to attract tourists coming and experiencing themselves”, hopefully expressed judge Anh Hoa.

The spice journey of Kon Tum chefs have come to a happy ending, comparing to last seasone, which is a ticket straight to the final round of The Golden Spoon 2016.

By Nguyen Trang

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