August 29, 2022
Ca bat or eggplant pickle is a specialty that brought fame to the ancient Khuong Ha Village or today’s Khuong Ha Street in Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi. Khuong Ha’s salt-brined whole-fruit eggplants usually sell at some VND50,000 (US$2) per kilo. With garlic and chili added, the price reaches up to VND150,000 ($6) per kilo. When the food is out of season, customers can’t buy it even if they spend millions.
With an over-300-year tradition, Khuong Ha pickle making was at its peak between 1930 and 1990. “In the past, my village was land for growing eggplants as well as handling every step of pickle making. Without arable land today, we have to depend on traders in Dan Phuong for eggplant supply,” Nguyen Sy Son, whose family has pickled eggplants for three generations, said.
Eggplant harvests begin around the second and third lunar months every year. A special feature that makes the Khuong Ha brand famous is that the villagers here only pickle fist-sized white or green striped eggplants.
This is because, according to the village elders, ca phao or baby eggplant is only suited for quick pickling whose expiration period is short, while ca bat remains crisp and white for up to ten months.
As affirmed by Son, Khuong Ha eggplant pickles are distinct from those of other areas thanks to the elaborate recipe and meticulousness in each step of elaboration. Newly picked eggplants are not immediately salted but dried for at least two days before their stems are plucked - not cut - to avoid scratches, which would lead to fluid leakage darkening and rotting of the fruit when pickled.
After preliminary processing, the eggplants are placed into vases, with a pinch of salt added to the top of each eggplant. Then, an extra amount of salt is added to each batch. Depending on the size, a vat like this weighs about 1-1.5 quintals. This is the dry-brining step.
Eight hours later, water is poured into the vats to cover all the eggplants. Depending on the amount, after about two to three weeks on average, the pickles will be ready to eat, crunchy and just sour enough, with ivory-white color and a bath of clear water.
In his old age, Nguyen Sy Hien, 85, Son’s father, is always concerned about his forefather's traditional trade. “In the old days, people in my village went to China to buy vats. Back then, my family had three workers, so the cooperative gave us six vats. Later, I bought about 200 of them from my neighbors, who gave up the trade. Without these vats, it would be difficult to make good pickled eggplants. Now many people in the village want to return to the trade, but there are no more vats like these.”
Son also shared that the greatest possessions his father left to the children and grandchildren are 200 vats for pickling eggplants, several dozen for each.
“Currently, all the six of us brothers earn our livelihood by making pickles. Although we are not well off, we still want to dedicate ourselves to our father's trade," he stated.
According to traditional pickle makers, preserving a quality eggplant vat is not simple. That's why the saying “vegetables stink, eggplants smell” still circulates here, meaning that pickles easily spoil.
In order for the eggplants to be compacted, bamboo trellises carrying large stones are put on top to keep them submerged underwater, then the vats are covered up to prevent air from entering and darkening the fruit.
Sy Hien said that Khuong Ha pickle making has some restrictions that still remain in his family. Particularly, daughters and daughters-in-law are only allowed to pluck the stems and wash the eggplants, but not to pickle the fruit, in order to avoid leaking out the recipe.
Even his wife, who has been attached to this trade all her life, is only allowed to sell the final product and help with supporting works.
“Eggplant pickles are also sensitive to rainwater. In the past, my family never picked eggplants when it had just rained. Now, I don’t buy eggplants after a shower, either. That's why the room for pickling eggplants must also be completely roofed to shelter the vats from the rainwater,” Hien shared.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the vats must not be placed in contact with cement floors and walls, as the salt vapor would crack them. On the other hand, after being pickled for some time, the fruit would remain intact but the smell and taste would be too pungent to eat. To sum up, pickle vats must also be positioned away from the floor, rainwater and humid places.
At present, only two or three households out of thousands in Khuong Ha Village still pickle eggplants. “The other families can only make a few quintals to a ton for retail, whereas we must make at least 20-30 tons a year,” said Son.
Although an eggplant season only lasts two months, the shelf life of the dish can last up to 10 months. Therefore, it can be sold all year round. Buyers can put it in the fridge, and take out just enough for each meal. Anyway, it still tastes the best during the season.
Nguyen Thi Hai, a resident from Thanh Xuan District shared that “I really love eating pickled ca bat, because the pieces are crispy, delicious and not rotten. But these eggplants are not bought easily even with a large sum of money. Out of the season, even a million dong per kilo won't be enough for you to eat it.”
Khuong Ha eggplants are usually salt-brined, so it's relatively salty. That's why before eating, people usually have to soak them first in drinking water to moderate the taste, then finely chop them, mix the pieces with fish sauce, garlic, chili and sugar. The dish is served with some crab soup or boiled morning-glory soup.
For over one hundred years, the crunchiness and rich flavor of eggplant pickled by Khuong Ha villagers have become the specialty of Hanoi.
Up to date, in addition to being pickled, ca bat can also be stir-fried with or without meat. The specialty is still sold largely today at many shops in Bui Xuong Trach Street and the surrounding area, all belonging to the old Khuong Ha Village.
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