Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Goddess, the Fermented Fish & my journey to Sam Mountain in Châu Đốc

The Goddess (the Goddess of the Prosperity, or The Lady of The Realm and in Vietnamese as we call "Bà Chúa Xứ" and the famous fermented fish - these two special things from Châu Đốc - a province in South of Vietnam, near to Cambodia. No any relationship between these two. The Lady of The Realm - she absolutely was not the creator of the fermented fish - the popular traditional dish especially in South.

              Fermented fish - a speciality from Châu Đốc, a province near to the bother with Cambodia.

Let's talk about the Goddess first. I heard of this Goddess probably only10 years ago, when I accompanied my cousin to this province. There was absolutely unbelievable crowd of pilgrims coming to the Shrine of this Goddess at that time, to pray for the Luck, for the Prosperity...It was almost impossible to get closer to the Shrine, even to the front yard, so I was standing from far, tried to figure out what happened in there.

                    Shrine of the Goddess of the Prosperity - Chùa Bà Chúa Xứ.

Who is this Goddess? According to some studies, it was probably a feminized statue of the Indian God Shiva, created by Khmer people in Cambodia, but some others said, she's the Chinese Goddess Mazu (Thiên Hậu Thánh Mẫu). Besides, other tales said how this sacred figure appeared in this region - the statue appeared either on the peak of one island after the water level in Mekong Delta went down, or discovered on the top of Sam mountain...

                         Bà Chúa Xứ, The Lady of the Realm, the Goddess of the Prosperity.

Also according to many legends - forty strongest men in the village assigned to carry the statue down the Sam mountain, but they failed as the statue seemed far too heavy, but when they were replaced by only nine virgin girls who later easily carried the statue down to the place where the Goddess wished to stay, the statue became too heavy again. Now this's where the Shrine stands today.

             During 4 days of April (24-27) by Lunar calendar - the bathing ceremony for the statue.

People has a great believe in this Goddess, they believe that The Goddess will bring the Richness to them, the greater offerings they bring to her, the deeper wishes they share with her, the better things they will get in return. But if they promise something to Goddess, they better keep, otherwise something, really, bad would be happening to them!

                   The Goddess headwear - one of those expensive offerings...

                    or a gorgeous cloak for the Goddess - also an offerings from the pilgrims.

                  People has a strong belief in this Goddess, they sincerely pray for her help.  

By the way, some other tales could scare you like this one - who prayed her for some big Luck and didn't keep their promise to the Goddess after getting what they want, they could be punished. Tragically! Or someone tried to move the statue, to steal something from the statue or even to bath her only 5' earlier - they would get a fatal punishment! So I did pray but didn't promise anything.

                     Here you can get a "Luck" from the Goddess after giving a small donation. 

                     After praying, most of the symbolic offerings - clothing, gold, money...will be burnt. 

                Like this man was about to burn "symbolic US dollars" - stronger currency, stronger wish!  

Hard for me to say that I have a such strong belief in this praying-God-for-help, as I grew up in a family where both of my parents didn't have any clear religious preference, I'm not a Buddhist, neither a Christian, but I'm definitely not an Atheist, I do respect and probably deep inside my heart, I would prefer to have a such enthusiasm when seeing people preparing their offerings to Goddess with a such great care.

                        One of many fermented fish shops in front of the Shrine of the Goddess.

Now another great speciality from this town - the fermented fish. I have a review about this fermented fish long ago when I first tried to prepare bún mắm at home. It seems that only Vietnam has a such variety of "bizarre" mắm, according to some foreign foodies.
It's truth as I couldn't find anything similar in our neighbouring countries, except Cambodia has only "bò hóc". Many of my friends can't eat "mắm", I can but not every "mắm", I do like mắm thái - a mixture of fermented papaya with fermented snakehead fish or mắm dưa - fermented cucumber.

                   Mắm thái - on the top - one of the most favourite fermented specialities in Châu Đốc.  

Mắm thái - thái here probably means "slice" when people cut fermented fish into slices and mix with fermented papaya. My guess. This mắm would be much tastier if we add a bit of chilli, garlic, lemon juice and a lot of sugar because mắm - very salty. Then we wrap it together with slices of cooked pork, different veggies,  rice vermicelli (bún) in a paper rice. It's such a nice dish.

                    Fermented cucumber on the right and papaya - on the left.

Fermented cucumber could go very well with rice porridge, or porridge with black bean...used to be a popular breakfast in the countryside in the past, now getting more and more popular with night crawlers in Sài Gòn, when we can get a bowl of hot porridge served with this fermented cucumber everywhere in town! Dưa mắm - half crispy, half soft, half sweet, half salty, a bit spicy...and with a strong but nice "mắm" flavour!

             Fermented snakehead fish - one of the most important ingredients for a dish "mắm chưng" 

                   Another fermented fish - another "must" ingredient for famous bún mắm. 

I have no idea how people do mắm, it could take several months for the fermenting process, it requires family secrets...but we have a such rich variety of mắm, it depends of the area - from the South up to the North, mắm could be made from this different kinds of fishes, but Châu Đốc - famous, especially for mắm thái, mắm cá lóc (fermented snakehead fish)...and luckily these two are in my list. I know some people adore mắm, or also hardly bear its strong flavour, but mắm always remains one of the most favourite not only dish but also ingredients for Vietnamese cuisine.

Châu Đốc, only 240-250 km away from Saigon, but due to the road conditions, one ferry to took us almost 5-6 hours in the car. So after my friends's long pray at Bà Chúa Xứ, another long  purchase of fermented things at the market, we realised that we had a little time to visit Núi Sam, so we were able to reach only to Victoria Châu Đốc Hotel, not even a halfway up to the mountain, but quite nice view from there down to Mekong Delta.

                         Not on the top of Sam mountain and the view to the rice fields below. 

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