Bánh nếp nhân trứng kiến, glutinous rice cakes filled with ant eggs, are a specialty of the Tày, an ethnic group that has existed for hundreds of years in the northern province of Tuyên Quang.
Forest feast: Eggs taken from black ant’s nests are used to make bánh nếp trứng kiến. Photos baotintuc.vn
89-year-old Tày elder Nông Thị Pẻng revealed the secrets behind the unique dish. She said it is only available in the springtime because that is when black ants reproduce.
Pẻng 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 vầu – a type of forest bamboo,” said Pẻng.
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, Pẻng said. Then, they carefully sift through the nests to avoid breaking the delicate eggs.
To make the cakes, high quality glutinous rice known as khẩu pét 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. Pẻng 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.
Pẻng 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.
Nguyễn Hồng Quân, a visitor from Hà Nội, said he travels to Tuyên 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.
Quân recounted the legend of the dish’s creation. Once upon a time, there was a very beautiful Tày woman. Her father said she would marry whoever could bring him the most delicious cake. Rich families offered bánh dày (round cake), bánh chưng (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 bánh nếp trứng kiến. 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 Tày ethnic group makes the cake for important occasions such as weddings or Tết celebrations,” Quân was told by his friend’s grandfather.
Famed Vietnamese physician Tuệ Tĩnh (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 Nguyễn Thị Vân Thái of the National Hospital of Traditional Medicine said scientists from Việt Nam and Germany carried out a research project to investigate Tuệ Tĩnh’s claims.
From the research, Thái 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