Tuesday, 02/10/2018 09:32

Ant’s egg rice cakes, a Tuyên Quang specialty

Forest feast: Eggs taken from black ant’s nests are used to make banh nep trung kien. Photos baotintuc.vn
Viet Nam News

By Ho Hoang

Banh nep nhan trung kien, glutinous rice cakes filled with ant eggs, are a specialty of the Tay, an ethnic group that has existed for hundreds of years in the northern province of Tuyen Quang.

89-year-old Tay elder Nong Thi Peng revealed the secrets behind the unique dish. She said it is only available in the springtime because that is when black ants reproduce.

Peng explained that black ant eggs are the only type that will work for the dish because they are nutritious, fatty and very tasty.

The ants make their nests in trees, often choosing forks in the branches. “We collect the eggs from fig trees, cinnamon trees, and vau – a type of forest bamboo,” said Peng.

Each egg is as small as a rice seed and has a milky colour. Each nest produces between 0.1 and 0.2 kg of eggs.

Locals collect nests in big baskets equipped with long handles to keep enough distance from the ants to prevent bites, Peng said. Then, they carefully sift through the nests to avoid breaking the delicate eggs.

To make the cakes, high quality glutinous rice known as khau pet is soaked in water for two hours and then ground into a powder with a mortar and pestle. The powder is kneaded into small balls and filled with a mixture of ant eggs, fried dried onion, salt and peppers. Peng said this process must be done carefully to keep the eggs whole.

Next, the dumplings are wrapped in fig leaves. The leaves are picked at just the right age to impart the dish with a special fragrance.

Once wrapped, the dumplings are steamed for 30-45 minutes.

Peng said that while the dish is full of protein and other nutrients, a diner trying it for the first time should sample a small piece first to make sure she or he is not allergic to the eggs.

Nguyen Hong Quan, a visitor from Ha Noi, said he travels to Tuyen Quang in the spring to visit his friends and enjoy the dish. He likes the soft texture, the fragrance of the leaves and, above all, the greasy ant eggs.

Quan recounted the legend of the dish’s creation. Once upon a time, there was a very beautiful Tay woman. Her father said she would marry whoever could bring him the most delicious cake. Rich families offered banh day (round cake), banh chung (square cake), and many others delicacies.

One man, too poor to afford a fancy cake, saw a big ant nest as he was walking in the forest. When he opened it and saw it was full of milky eggs, he brought them home and created banh nep trung kien. He offered the dish to the woman’s father, who enjoyed it more than all the expensive cakes he had been offered.

The woman and the poor man married, and went on to live a very happy life.

“From that day on, the Tay ethnic group makes the cake for important occasions such as weddings or Tet celebrations,” Quan was told by his friend’s grandfather.

Famed Vietnamese physician Tue Tinh (1330-1400) wrote that in addition to the nutrients they provide ant eggs can help cure many ailments. He recorded that they could be used to treat ear infections, sexual dysfunction and bites from venomous snakes.

Dr Nguyen Thi Van Thai of the National Hospital of Traditional Medicine said scientists from Viet Nam and Germany carried out a research project to investigate Tue Tinh’s claims.

From the research, Thai said the scientists developed prolin to help improve joint health, threonine to boost central nervous system function and a treatment for weak children.

 “We plan to preserve black ants to use their eggs to make more traditional medicines for domestic use and export,” she said. — VNS

White Gold: Milky ant’s eggs ready to fill the cakes.
Ready to eat: A plate of enticing banh nep trung kien.
Natural snack: Many people enjoy the fig leaves used to wrap the cakes.

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