We tend to think of Vietnamese cuisine as a single entity, but really it’s made up of many regional dishes and ingredients. The cooking of Huế features a variety of such foods, and a variety of locally grown fig is one of these. The vả fig, Ficus auripculata, is only cultivated in the central region of Việt Nam, although it’s also grown in other parts of Asia, including China, Thailand, and Malaysia, as well as in Australia.
Vả are picked well before they are ripe, while still bright green on the outside, with white flesh surrounding a hollow pink centre. At this stage, they are hard, crunchy, faintly sweet and a little bitter. Their flesh is somewhat meaty, somewhat nutty. In Vietnamese, this mouthfeel is described as bùi, a word that has no equivalent in English but is sometimes translated as “rich” or “nutty”. They are also quite astringent, like a green banana.
In Huế, several different dishes are most typically prepared with this fig: raw vả are combined with slices of green bananas as well as unripe star fruit and assorted herbs and lettuce to accompany bánh khoái, a crisp rice pancake filled with pork and shrimp, or nem lụi, grilled pork sticks, or with a side of tôm chua to eat with thinly sliced boiled pork; they are made into a spicy blended appetiser/salad served with crunchy rice paper crackers, popular for both meals and snacks and as a dish served to accompany beer; they are used in soups and kho dishes (which are eaten with rice and have a thick, salty sauce). These dishes are sometimes called poor people’s food because the figs are so affordable, but in reality, all of them are seen both on the family dinner table and in expensive restaurants.
Vả trộn, a favourite salad-type dish in central Việt Nam, is mildly sweet, mildly salty, and spicy according to taste. If you want to prepare this dish, boil the vả until quite soft, then peel and slice very thinly. Drain and then squeeze them to remove excess water and work the figs gently by hand until they begin to fall apart. Toasted sesame seeds, boiled shrimp and lean pork cut into thin oblongs, fish sauce, salt, pepper, powdered dried chilis, and if you are a true Huế cook, a little MSG, are necessary flavourings, as are shredded mint and persicaria leaves (rau răm).
Combine everything and top the salad with coriander leaves, caramelised sliced shallots, green onion sections, and toasted lightly crushed peanuts. Serve with bánh tráng (crunchy toasted rice paper crackers). Invite guests to break the crackers into pieces big enough to scoop up mouthfuls of the salad. No need for forks or spoons.
Luke Nguyen, in his book The Food of Vietnam, recommends using green jackfruit to make his version of vả fig salad since it’s rare to find the fruits outside central Viet Nam. In the photo above, the white slices with seeds are young jackfruit, right above the slices of green bananas
Vả kho sườn heo is a simple dish of stewed pork ribs and vả figs. In the old days, this type of stewed vả dish was commonly served to nursing mothers, because people believed that it helped increase milk production.
The vả tree is unusual in that the fruits develop in bunches on stems born right on the trunk and branches, just like jackfruit. Its beautiful large leaves make it a good shade tree even if it doesn’t grow very tall. I’ve seen vả trees in people’s courtyards,in the woods, and at possibly every pagoda I’ve visited in Huế. The trees are easy to grow, require little care, and produce fruit pretty much year round, though the main season is from December to March, bracketing the Tết holidays.
The raw figs were never a favourite for me, but after over ten years of nibbling at them, I’ve learned to like them. The spicy salad, on the other hand, I’ve never had trouble eating.
When served raw or prepared for pickling, vả should be peeled and bathed in salt water to prevent oxidization turning them brown, then either cut into thin slices for salads or brined before pickling. My in-laws and neighbours in Huế often prepare sweet and sour vả pickles for Tết. We put up several jars of them to serve guests during Tết celebrations for the Year of the Monkey, which began yesterday, February 8. Happy Lunar New Year!