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The Amazing Natural Sweetener From The Forests

Friday, 03/03/2017 09:08
It’s so amazing how Mother Nature tricksily hides a natural sweetener, which tastes similarly to MSG, in tips of amazing trees.

He thought what we ate could poison us and the simplest example was that MSG. If we had indulged using MSG for a long time, it might cause memory loss, taste loss, and other harmful effects. Miserably, the habit of using artificial seasonings has refractory stuck because we people keep thinking that those seasonings make our food tastier.

Seeking for leaves

 How do we get rid of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” but still ensure our food’s taste? “Go learn from the mountain people”, briefly he said.

Breaking dawn on highlands in Da Hoai, Lam Dong province, was so pure. Fog was hanging on trees, flowing above quite streams while birds were singing their own songs. We Saigon-ese just walked and jumped around for 20 minutes then quickly got tired and felt hungry.

On the menu of the restaurant we had stopped, we focused on the name “Nhip vegetable” (Gnetum gnemon L. var. griffithii Markgr.) because we were introduced that it had a special taste, which was half-similar to chicken and half-like supreme MSG. We ordered 2 dishes, stir-fried Nhip with garlic, and stir-fried Nhip with beef.

Young leaves were pinkish, slim, and long as young mango leaves. However, they had a feature smell, which was not very pleasant.

Nhip vegetable, also called chicken leaves or sweetener leaves.

By slowly chewing we tasted a transparent sweet after-taste. It’s so amazing how Mother Nature tricksily hides a natural sweetener, which tastes similarly to MSG, in tips of amazing trees.

This leaf’s common name is Bep, Nhip, and other regional names, and scientifically called Gnetum gnemon L. The book “Memories about Eastern forests” (People’s Army publisher) told stories about how Nhip vegetables saved hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers getting lost in Binh Phuoc forest during America – Viet Nam war. Running out of food, they had to eat wild leaves for weeks even though they did not know what that was. Years later, local people had found that was Nhip leaf.

Similar story was about Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Son, former officer from battalion 186 – military zone 6 – and his teammates survived by Nhip leaves for days in Eastern Highland forests. In documentary film Truong Son hung trang (The Doughty Truong Son), episode 10, Mr. Son had told this touching story.

We eagerly bought a big bunch of Nhip leaves back home to swank our instructor but he just simply smiled and said that we had collected only a quarter of this leaf and had guided us to Bom Bo village to learn more.

S’tieng people in Binh Phuoc province also smashed thick Nhip leaves then fermented them before mixing with drinks.

Lessons from Bom Bo village

We had gone too far to draw back. Our team packed up and gone again to the hometown of the minorities.

We met Mr. Dieu Khue riding his rustic motorbike, heading to cashew orchards. We asked him taking us to find the leaves “which-taste-like-MSG” so that we could take photos for records. “Oh, Bo-Nhau leaves”, quickly he responded. However, he was busy that morning working in cashew orchards and only could be our tour guide in the afternoon. Mr. Dieu immediately gave his price as 500000 vnd, which was as much as a bowl of Kobe beef Pho.

That S’tieng guy with russet eyes gave us plenty valued information about Bo-Nhau leaves, such as there were 2 types, long and oval shapes, and mixing both of them together would make great taste. Especially, they worked well with soup or congees contained small amount of starch.

“Rice or sweet rice, yam and other types of roots make sap of leaves taste even sweeter”, shared Mr. Dieu Khue.

It was a gigantic triumph just as we won a jackpot. So far, there was no dictionary of herbs as diverse as knowledge of local people. The more we experienced, the more empathetic we were with picturesque lyrics that told stories of that hard time.

Our instructor laughed so hard when seeing our second reports. He revealed huge nourishing values of this wild leaves, “Herbal food of Nguyen dynasty honored it as “food of God”. It It helps the liver to detoxify more effectively, also helps kidneys and digestive system to work better. No such food has nutritional and protein balance as Nhip leaves”, said Mr. Nguyen Phuc Ung Vien, physicians in Go Vap district, HCMC.

Ms. Tham, elementary school teacher in Loc Ninh town, Binh Phuoc province, added, “Bo-nhau trees in farm land have small leaves than the one in Bu Gia Map national forests. Leaves of trees on alkaline soil are not as sweet as the one close to fresh water. We cook Bo-nhau leaves in soup to nourish patients and postpartum women.”

Excitingly, we started practicing cooking those leaves.


We chose Hang Duong restaurant to do the very first experiment because they usually had ant-chicken, a type of home-raised chickens from Binh Dinh or Quang Ngai., Ant-chicken, known as one of the specialty of the Middle, were and they slowly grew up but they have excellent meat.

At that time, a former General, gave the restaurant owner a congee-hot-pot, which was combined from Chinese style and the Central of Viet Nam’s style.

Chicken was filleted, thinly sliced into 3 – 4cm long pieces then marinated with pure fish sauce, chopped onions, and cilantro.

Chicken bones and offal were stewed in the coogee hot pot made from grinded rice and green been in order to sweeten the broth.

The bunch of Nhip (Bep) leaves was water cleaned, picked, and waited to be dipped into the congee-hot-pot.

Quite indescribable! When the congee hot pot came to the boil, its scent irresistibly thrived. The leaves were a bit oily and yet so sweet in an unique yet impressive way. The more we cooked, the sweeter it was.

The most impressive thing to mention was the after-taste. Half hour had passed but the robust sweetness still remained somewhere on the tongues. Diners somehow had to be addicted to this wild sweetness.

Sometimes the writer silly wonder: why do we have bitter fruits as bitter melon, spicy fruits as chili, and sweet leaves as those? Ph.D, physician Ngo Duc Vuong partially explained in his book named Bright philosophy in Oriental eating as quoted, “Plants absorb inorganic substances and synthesize to organic ones. That is a miracle from mutual effects of natural energy that no such ultra-modern laboratories can imitate.”

And my instructor just briefly responded, “I have nothing else to say.”

Writer: Kien Giang/Nguoilaodong

Translator: Thu Pham

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