"Delicious, unique, and exotic - those are the comments of many tourists when enjoying dishes made from cassava leaves at the Clean Agricultural Fair in Dak Ha district. Embodying the rustic and simple culinary culture of the Xo Dang people, cassava leaf dishes can be 'addictive' to anyone, even for the first taste.

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During a recent work trip to Dak Ui commune (Dak Ha district), I, along with youth union members, prepared ingredients and spices to cook cassava leaf dishes for display at the Clean Agricultural Fair in Dak Ha district.

Carrying lightweight empty baskets on our shoulders, Ms. Y Ngan - the Youth Union Secretary of Dak Ui commune - led the group towards the production area deep in the village. After about a 20-minute walk, the cassava fields appeared before us.

Patting the handle of the basket she was carrying, Ms. Y Ngan exclaimed: 'Everyone, spread out and start picking cassava leaves! This morning, each person must fill their basket with cassava leaves to meet the quota. Since there's still a lot of work to do, let's focus on picking quickly to prepare for processing. Remember to pick the young leaves, near the top. That way, the dishes will be tastier and have a special flavor.'

Going to the field to pick cassava leaves.

Under the nimble and deft hands of the women, the baskets gradually filled with fresh cassava leaves. After finishing the picking process, everyone rested for a moment before hurriedly preparing to return to the communal longhouse in Village 8.

While pressing down on the cassava leaves in the basket to prevent them from falling off on the way home, Ms. Y Ngan chatted: "Cassava leaves are one of the traditional dishes that have been closely associated with the Xo Dang people for generations. However, not all cassava leaves can be eaten. There are some types of cassava leaves, even those eaten by buffalo, cows, and livestock, that can make you dizzy for hours, let alone humans. But for this type of cassava leaf, which is gòn cassava, commonly grown in this area, it's different. The stem of the gòn cassava is not as tall as other types of cassava, with purple-colored stems. Gòn cassava leaves, when processed, taste delicious and never make you dizzy.

When the women brought the cassava leaves back to gather at the communal longhouse in Village 8, another group of women was waiting there to start the processing stage. Tools such as fermentation jars, mortar and pestle, and jars were placed neatly in a corner of the longhouse.

Lá mì được tập kết để chế biến thành các món ăn

With a radiant smile replacing her greeting, Ms. Y Ut - Secretary of the Youth Union of Village 8, Dak Ui commune, recounted an incident she encountered during the previous Clean Agricultural Product Fair: "While I was busy preparing for the cassava leaf food stall, a visitor (seemed to be from outside the province) asked, 'What dish is this, dear? It looks rustic and appealing!' 'These are cassava leaves, ma'am! Specifically, they are sour cassava leaves, a specialty of our Xo Dang ethnic group!' - I replied.

'Cassava leaves can be eaten too? This is the first time I've heard of it! I always thought cassava was only grown for its roots!' - the visitor asked in surprise.

So I invited the visitor to taste it. After that, she praised its deliciousness. Before leaving the stall, the visitor didn't forget to buy a few jars for herself and as gifts for her relatives.

"That's it, you see. Although cassava leaves are a very familiar dish to the people here, for many people in other regions, this dish is still very unfamiliar. In the past, dishes made from cassava leaves were mainly for 'survival,' as a substitute for rice. Yet later on, dishes made from cassava leaves became specialties, a distinctive feature in the culinary culture of our Xo Dang people and many other ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands. That's something to be proud of!" - Ms. Y Ut said proudly.

According to research, the most popular dish made from cassava leaves is sour cassava leaf soup. After being harvested by the locals, the cassava leaves are cleaned, salted, and then squeezed until they become firm and dry. Next, the leaves are placed in sour fermentation jars. People believe that the speed of souring depends on the skill of the person making it. Skilled individuals can achieve the desired sourness in about 2 days, while others may take 3-4 days.

An important step in the cooking process is the squeezing of the leaves. It must be done completely by hand, hence the use of traditional presses to squeeze and rub off the sap and resin of the leaves.

Apart from sour fermentation, the Xo Dang people have various other methods to prepare cassava leaves. The quickest and simplest method involves briefly squeezing the leaves and then boiling them until cooked, then served with fish sauce. A more complex method involves boiling or fermenting the leaves with other foods such as bird meat, rat meat, or freshwater fish. Regardless of the method used, cassava leaves have a rich, aromatic flavor that leaves a strong impression on the palate.

According to Ms. Y Ngan, by understanding the needs and preferences of consumers, the Youth Union of the commune has mobilized its members to participate in clean agricultural cooperatives. Members are assigned different tasks such as sourcing raw materials from the forest, processing them into products, displaying, and promoting local specialties. Through the sale of cassava leaf products at clean agricultural fairs, the cooperative contributes to increasing income for its members.

Rubbing cassava leaves to ferment

Ms. Y Út confided, "When I was young, my mother used to cook various dishes from cassava leaves for me. As I grew a little older, I was able to help my mother in preparing them. When I got married, I continued to cook and passed down the recipes to my children and grandchildren. Thus, that way of life, those dishes, have always been passed down and inherited."

Thanks to the habits in daily life and the activities to maintain and develop the local clean agricultural cooperative, the young generation in the villages all understand how to cook dishes from cassava leaves. Whether rich or poor, whether in the past or now, cassava leaves always feature in the meals of the Xo Dang people. Therefore, cassava leaf dishes are naturally among the traditional culinary specialties of the Xo Dang people.

Returning from my trip to Dak Ui commune, I am still impressed by the diversity of dishes made from cassava leaves by the Xo Dang people. Simple yet delicious, these dishes are unforgettable. Along with that, one cannot forget the hospitable, fragrant, and sincere hospitality of the Xo Dang people in this land.