Festival food gives new meaning to ’killer’ fare


The healthy aspect of many Vietnamese traditions and festivals is perhaps most exemplified by the Doan Ngo Festival, which is celebrated on the fifth of the fifth lunar month.

What makes this festival special is that the food prepared for it has the specific objective of getting rid of worms inside the body.

Tradition has it that the human body, particularly the digestive system, tends to host worms that can do harm to health if they are not eliminated in time.

It is believed that their growth peaks during summer noons, thus the timing of the festival on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar year, a day that marks the beginning of the hottest days of the year and the outbreak of many diseases.

Fermented sticky rice and summer fruits like litchi or plum are the most popular dishes that Vietnamese across the country enjoy during this festival, for eliminating worms and refreshing their bodies. However, there are also dishes that vary with regions. For example, while the tro cake is had in the north, people in the centre eat duck meat and in the south, che troi nuoc (floating rice-ball pudding) is festival fare.

The tradition of eating such foods for the Doan Ngọ Festival has been maintained by the Vietnamese for generations, and become an intrinsic part of the nation’s culture.

There is an interesting myth associated with the Doan Ngọ Festival. One year, farmers were celebrating a bumper crop when there was a sudden outbreak of worms that destroyed all the harvested fruit and food. As the farmers struggled to get rid of the destructive worms, an old man appeared.

He asked the farmers to prepare trays of simple offerings, including rice cakes and fruit then perform certain rituals in front of their houses. After following his advice for a while, all the worms disappeared. The old man cautioned the farmers that the worms would become very aggressive that one day, and asked the villagers to follow his advice every year to eliminate them. When the farmers were about to express their gratitude to the elder, he disappeared, mysteriously.

Since then, the day is called the worm-killing festival. It is also called the Doan Ngo Festival, “Doan” meaning the beginning and “Ngo” meaning noon.

Fermented sticky rice

This is one of the most popular dishes across Viet Nam during the Doan Ngo Festival. The strong smell of the sticky rice, combined with the hot taste of wine, is believed to have the power to kill all the unhealthy worms in the body.

The dish is easy to prepare but it needs a special kind of alcohol yeast to make it both delicious and healthy. It is made with black glutinous rice or brown glutinous rice. After it is cooked, the rice is left to ferment (with yeast) in hot weather for one or two days. The dish can be a bit spicy but its sweetness still lingers for long on the tongue.

Each region has a different way of making fermented sticky rice, but all the versions are delicious.

Tro Cake

Besides fermented sticky rice, tro cakes is a dish that one can find plenty of in markets across the country during the Doan Ngo Festival. The cakes have different names in each regions, like u, gio and am, and their shapes also vary.

The small cake, cylindrical or triangular, are not easy to make, requiring great care in every step from choosing the rice to soaking it in the special water that uses ashes of burnt rice straw. But once the cake, which has a strong, ashy smell, is had with molasses, people are eager to eat it again.

Khuc cake

Khuc cake is a Doan Ngo Festival specialty of the Nung ethnic minority in northern Viet Nam. It is a rice ball made of glutinous rice mixed with cudweed (khuc), its most important ingredient, and filled with green bean paste, pork and spices.

The cake can be steamed or fried, according to taste, but the most popular version is dipped and “rocked” in the cooking oil to give it a glossy, inflated look. With the cudweed fragrance, softness of the filling and slightly buttery taste of the sesame, this is a gourmet dish.

Duck meat

An indispensable Doan Ngo Festival dish for people in central Viet Nam is duck meat. It is believed that duck meat has nutritious, cooling properties that make it ideal for hot summer days. Another reason is that the festival marks the beginning of the duck season, when the fowls become fat and tasty, and do not have the usual unpleasant smell.

The duck meat is cooked into various dishes, including boiled duck dipped in a ginger-flavoured fish sauce, brined duck or duck simmered with sau (dracontomelon) fruit. No need to elaborate on this, right?

Floating rice-ball pudding

For the Vietnamese people in the south, floating rice-ball pudding is the special festival dish, unlike the Vietnamese in the north typically have it on the third day of the lunar year.

The pudding is made of glutinous rice filled with mung bean paste bathed in clear or brown syrupt. It is generally warmed before eating and garnished with sesame seeds and coconut milk. Its buttery sweet taste combines very well with the spicy warm taste of ginger.