Mac khen, an indispensable spice of ethnic groups in the northwestern region
Update: Jul 26, 2022
In Muong language, the name of mac khen is rather self-explanatory, describing the pungent, peppery smell of the spice. However, its fragrance compound is far more complex than pepper with an additional crisp, dry woodiness woven into green citruses. This makes mac khen a truly versatile spice that can elevate any dish, said Nga. 

My Muong ethnic friend, Bui Thi Nga invited me to her home in Hoa Binh Province to enjoy dishes with mac khen, a speciality spice originating from the northwestern region of Viet Nam.

Mac khen, a specialty spice of the northwestern. Photo

“Mac khen can be coupled with chicken, red meat, lamb or pork. But my favourite pairing is with fish and seafood dishes given the pepper’s zesty, citrus scent, which is excellent at reducing unpleasant odours and lending these ingredients a bright, uplifting note. Cookers only then need to add a little bit of salt, fish sauce or soy sauce to get the food ready to be cooked,” she said.

During my stay at her home, she cooked a number of dishes for me. They included ca ro phi nuong mac khen (grilled tilapia with mac khen), thit lon rung xao mac khen (wild boar fries with mac khen), canh mang chua nau mac khen (sour bamboo shoots cooked with mac khen) and several others.

Fish with mac khen. Photo

She asked her husband to catch three tilapias (each weighing about 0.7-1kg) from a pond in front of her house.

“This fresh fish makes the dish tastier,” said Nga, adding that other ingredients include dried and fresh onions, chilli, citronella and herbs.

Nga told me to mince the ingredients and mix them with soy sauce, broth mix and fish sauce. Then, we put the herbs and citronella into the fish's belly for half an hour, before grilling it over wooden charcoal for another half an hour.

Roasted chicken with mac khen is a regular of visitors and travellers to Hoa Binh Province. Photo

The dish was so tasty with a special aromatic flavour from the mac khen that it made my mouth water.

I’ve eaten grilled fish in other locations but fish soaked with mac khen is quite different because the dish here is more fragrant and sweet.

“In addition, the dish is very good for the digestive system as it helps to prevent intestinal diseases such as diarrhoea and indigestion,” said Nga.

The next day, Nga told me that she would fry wild boar with mac khen for me to try.

“The meat is available in my village’s market where hunters sell it every day,” she said.

Ethnic groups in Hoa Binh Province often treat their guests to grilled wild boar soaked in mac khen. Photo

Nga and I went to the market to buy a kilogram of wild boar, which is minced with mac khen, garlic and some other ingredients.

The boar meat is cut into thin slices and soaked for 20 minutes.

Put two tablespoons of cooking oil in a pan over a big fire and fry the meat for 10 minutes. Then, add citronella, chili, broth mix and two teaspoons of fish sauce.

Nga told me to take out the fried boar meat onto a big plate and top it with mac khen.

The dish is so delicious that I thought I could eat it all but Nga said eating it with rice is more enjoyable.

On the last day of my stay, Nga cooked me sour bamboo shoot soup with chicken and mac khen. I was very impressed with the dish, as it blended the soft sourness of the bamboo with the sweetness of the chicken and fragrant pepper from mac khen.

Nga presented me with a bottle of mac khen seeds and gave me a recipe to cook these dishes at my home in Ha Noi.

She said all visitors and travellers to Hoa Binh Province should try these dishes. 

Quy Duong

VNS - - July 26, 2022