Tuesday, 27/11/2018 09:00

Coóng phù cakes a perfect winter warmer

Traditional: A co ong phu Cao Bang seller is kneading her cakes.
Viet Nam News

By Ha Nguyen

When winter approaches, locals in the northern province of Cao Bang often cook coong phu cake (or phu noong in Tay language) to offer to their ancestors, praying for the severe cold to end.

Like Sa Pa, in northwest, Cao Bang has to suffer severe cold including hoarfrost that kills plants, animals and also the elderly.

The food is something like banh troi nuoc (floating cake made of bits of brown sugar wrapped in glutinous rice paste and cooked in boiling water) of the Kinh (majority) people in the lowland areas.

Tay elder Nong Thi Vui said for her ethnic group, the dish is not only fragrant from khau pet (a kind of special glutinous rice only planted in the province), sweet from sugar molasses and nutty from roasted peanuts and sesame, but smells hot from ginger, helping those who eat it feel healthy and much warmer during the cold winter.

Bright colours: A tray of kneaded coong phu ready for sale.

“The cake came into being a hundred years ago from the original Tay ethnic group. It is so tasty that almost everyone living in the province, including the Kinh, know how to make the cake and are interested in eating it,” said Vui. 

In the past my father was assigned to work in Cao Bang and he brought our family along. Coong phu was among many specialties that I would never forget as sometimes after class my classmates and I often rushed to a woman named Tran Thi Sang to eat the cake. 

It was so tasty and fragrant I thought I could eat two bowls at the same time, but I didn’t have enough money to pay.

Sometimes, Sang’s shop was so crowded we had to help her to knead the dough into small balls and then add ground roasted peanuts mixed with roasted sesame. First it was rather difficult because it was often broken but after seeing Sang I could knead it smoothly then put them in a tray.

“I often order glutinous rice from farmers in Cao Bang’s Nguyen Binh District six months in advance to ensure the quality of my cake,” Sang said.

Hearty dish: Aromatic coong phu cakes of Cao Bang are popular in winter. — Photos baocaobang.vn

One kilo of glutinous rice is mixed with 0.1kg of rice and soaked in water for 3-4 hours before grinding it to dough and then hanging the wet dough for two hours to reduce water before kneading.

I still remember the minutes I had to wait for Sang to drop the balls into the pot of boiling water and ladle it out to put it in a bowl and then pour over molasses with fresh ginger.

Sang said it should be eaten hot to enjoy the aromatic flavour as well as to warm up the body.

Sang became the most popular seller of the dish in the province and her fame was passed down from generation to generation, local Nung Thi Tham said.

Unlike Sang, many coong phu sellers in the province nowadays use orange, green, violet and yellow colors from gac (a special fruit grown in South East Asia, especially in Viet Nam), wormwood, and magenta leaves to make the colourful cakes more attractive, said Trieu Thi Van in Cao Bang’s Song Hien Ward.

Famous treat: The cakes are cooked in boiling water.

“These natural fruits and plants are very healthy and nutritious,” said Van.

People in Cao Bang make the cake to celebrate winter solstice which falls on December 21-22, to pray for good luck.

“During such a cold day, enjoying hot coong phu with relatives around a warm fire is so great that someone who moves far from the province is sure to miss and crave the cake,” said Nong Van Nguyen, originally from Cao Bang.

Nguyen is right.

Cao Bang native Duong Quang Phong, who resettled in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago, said his family missed the cakes so much, particularly when winter comes. "Although my mother cooks the food, its flavor is something different from the original one in the province.” — VNS


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