The year was 1999. I was foot-loose and fancy free, traipsing about in northern Vietnam with nothing but my passport and a backpack filled with a few items of clothing and my Canon DSLR. This was back in the days when I shunned luxurious modes of transportation, wanting instead, to travel with the least amount of riff-raff stuck to me so that I could take off in any direction at my slightest whim. I took the bus to whatever destination it arrived at and got off if I smelled something good to eat or if the scenery looked interesting enough to warrant a photo or two.
It was at one of these dusty bus depots that I found myself in the province of Long An, in the village of Mỹ Lệ, where I heard an old man talking about the province’s only claim to fame, a regionally renown rice with a strikingly unique name of Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào. He told me in his difficult-to-understand local Vietnamese dialect that it was the rice which was grown and served to the kings of Vietnam in ancient times because it was so fragrant and so rare.
Of course, you know, as a curious Taobabe, I absolutely had to try it out. So I followed the old man to a roadside inn where the kitchen was located outside of the structure because of the smoke coming from the wood cook range. The rice used here is authentic, he assures me, but I had to ask for it, and I had to pay a lot more than the normal price for the rice. How much more? I asked. A lot more, he said.
Well, ‘a lot more’ meant ten-cents per bowl for Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào, as opposed to five-cents per bowl for the usual run-of-the-mill fragrant white rice found in plentiful supply all over Vietnam—so I said, “Bring it on!” To add some flavor to the rice, and also because I was hungry, I also ordered a few extra dishes to go with the rice.
Let me tell you, the man was not exaggerating about the rice’s unique properties. Within minutes, I could smell the strong perfumed aroma of the rice, and even as the smoke from the cooking stove blew into my eyes and caused my vision to blur, through the veil of tears, I could see plates of meats and vegetables placed before me in ever-growing quantities.
Since the price of each dish ranged between fifty to seventy-five cents apiece, I really didn’t care how much food came out. I wanted to try everything. The rice was the last to arrive, it being the guest of honor on my culinary sojourn, and it was the heavenly smell of this grain that made my stomach growl. Thirty-minutes and three-dollars later, I was convinced of the rice’s wondrous properties.
Before I get into the details of the Scented Virgin, let me assure you that I am quite familiar with most varieties of white rice, both local and imported. I have been cooking with a wide variety of rice on a daily basis since I was nine or ten so I have a well-rounded working knowledge of the unique flavors and uses of a plethora of rices. Compared to most rice available on the market, this rice is extra special.
Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào, literally translated, means The Virgin Thơm of the Red Market. The word Thơm, in the Vietnamese language has two meanings, depending on context. It can mean pineapple, or it can mean scented. Since we are talking about a specific rice strain, it makes no sense to assign the meaning of pineapple to the word thơm, therefore, in context, it can only mean scented. In this case, however, there is an added twist. Thơm is the name of a girl who was born in ancient times, and her story is what imparted the strikingly memorable name to one of Vietnam’s most famous strain of rice, Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào.
According to local legends, Thơm was a strikingly beautiful girl with breathtaking features, slender curvy body, milky white skin, and long, lustrous raven hair. She was so beautiful that every man who met her fell in love with her. This is not as much of a blessing as you would think. In fact, it is rather a bit of a drag.
Thơm was not born into wealth. Her family was poor, but they did own several plots of land in Mỹ Lệ (Picturesque Village) next to a canal named Rạch Đào (Red Groove Canal). All the men in her village vied for her hand in marriage, but she paid them no attention as she was already in love with her childhood friend, a local boy whose family was just as poor as hers was. Of the men who thought they might have a chance with her, one was the son of a wealthy landowner.
Using his family’s wealth and power, he managed to confiscate the three small plots of land that her family owned. His terms were simple. All she had to do to recover the three plots was to agree to marry him. Thơm was devastated by this turn of events. She did not want to marry this man, but her family was poor and there were many mouths to feed. Thinking about all her hungry sibblings, as well as her hard-working parents who toiled in the rice fields all day long, Thơm agreed to the wealthy man’s terms of engagement. She tearfully broke up with her long-time sweetheart and went home to prepare for her wedding day.
On the date of her wedding, true to his promise, the deed of the three plots of land was returned to her family, and the wedding was to take place that afternoon. However, when it was time to pick up the bride, Thơm was nowhere to be found. Later that day, they found her body in the Rạch Đào (Red Groove Canal), an apparent suicide. It is also said that before she died, she wished for her family, the best lands in the world, where the rice would grow so well as to become rice fit for a king to eat. Legend says, it was this dying wish that gave Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào rice its famous scent and taste.
Back in 1999, when I first had a bowl of this rice, it was still fairly obscure to the rest of the country and only widely known throughout the region. However, by 2006, even though it was an ancient grain, it was finally officially recognized as a separate genetic strain of rice and renamed Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào. Once it was recognized, everyone wanted to try the rice, but here is where things got tough.
Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào is not your typical rice strain. It is a fairly difficult rice to cultivate. It only grows six months out of the year, and only once per planting which means there is only one crop per year from only three rice fields located in Mỹ Lệ Village. Compare this with many other rice strains which grow three times per year in all other regions of the rice-growing lands, up and down Vietnam, and it becomes even more apparent how special this rice is.
Unfortunately, not all bags labeled Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào are legitimate. Some bags only have a certain percentage of the real deal, with the remaining rice made up of Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào rice grown elsewhere. The cost is cheaper, and certainly, there is some real Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào rice mixed in with the other non-specific locale variety, but it would not be the same as the real deal. To get the real rice, one would have to make a trip to that village and find an honest merchant who specializes in that rice. Hopefully, in future, when there are procedures in place to protect the product, only rice grown in this region from this stock will be given the appropriate label. Until then, there is no guarantee one will get the real Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào rice without having been there in person to make the purchase.
Why am I going on and on about rice? Short answer is: genetic variance and diversity. Turns out, there has been much breakthrough in the science of rice genetics. The lineage of rice follows the same pattern of human migration, and it is towards this exciting topic that I will focus my next posting around.
Cool piece. I like how you weaved the personal in with the cultural, social, and historical storytelling.
Thanks Erik! 🙂
This sorry is so tragic and beautiful!