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The buffalo fighting feast

By Nhung Pham

I remember vaguely that it was about 6.00 AM. I jerked out of my sleep, hearing loud noises of drums, gongs, a parade. I rubbed my eyes from my bed in the mezzanine I shared with my sister.The space only fit one double mattress and a desk--we called it the deluxe suite of our childhood. I pushed the mossy green curtain to one side, stuck my head out of the window, filled my lungs with fresh morning air.

Photo credit: Robertus Pudyanto Do Son Buffalo Festival

I could see a colourful and lively mass procession, about 12 elderly people dressed in black ao dai - a traditional long blouse with a red fabric belt, and off-white palm-leaf conical hats, carrying colourful palanquins and festival flags. Two young chaps carried the yoke with a ceramic jug of holy water in the middle, followed by loud music from traditional instruments such as gongs, bass drum, and flute. The locals were heading to the village's pagoda to join a ceremony.

 Buffalo owners followed next with their fighting buffalo into the village's pagoda to carry out the Water Goddess and Tutelary God Worshipping rite--the Buffalo Fighting Festival's spirit ritual. After this event, each fighting buffalo is formally called "Sir Buffalo’’-symbolizing the locals' spiritual life, hope, and beliefs.

Yes! I thought to myself. I have been looking forward to this day every year ever since I was a child, and as I start to remember things, my tummy is growling with excitement. My two favourites uncles would be home that afternoon, just in time for the festival feast.

The buffalo fighting festival is based on people's belief in Do Son, a village in Northern Vietnam, that buffalo fighting favours their guardian Gods. They believe it blesses them with safety, voyages, good harvest and prosperity.

The Do Son Buffalo Fighting festival first appeared in the 18th century; throughout ups and downs in history, it has been organised officially by local authorities since 1990.

The festival has helped to preserve and develop both the folk elements and traditional culture of the region. As a result, it was given national heritage status in 2013.  Held annually on the ninth day of the eighth lunar month, It is the second main ceremony of the year after the 'Tet Holiday' for the resident of Do Son.

Like any other Vietnamese festival, the Do Son Buffalo Fighting festival includes spiritual rites, entertainment, activities and culminates in a feast for the whole village. The dinner is what people most look forward to. It concludes the festival with nearly ten distinctive dishes based on only one main ingredient: the sacred buffalo meat. It represents solidarity, gathering, caring and the sense of "coming home".

Although the Buffalo Fighting Festival has played a big part in Do Son people's daily lives, culture, and history, its heritage status has been threatened in recent years because of controversy over the fighting of buffalos -a subject of debate. Many people protest against the festival due to its cruelty and potential danger to others. Whether the festival and its culture will be kept alive or fade away remains uncertain. Would it be the same without the buffalo fighting element and the feast of the sacred buffalo meat? The answers are down to the opinions of the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism and the general public. It is yet to be decided. I am an expat that was lucky enough to be born and raised in Do Son. I would love to see this traditional festival passing on generations after.

I  vividly recall the festival from my youth-the colours, traditions, sights and above all -tastes

The Buffalo Fights was held at Do Son Stadium in the town centre. Its opening ceremony was unique and to the extreme. There were 24 muscular young men line up into two rows, brandishing the festival flag up, down or in a circular motion, following the rhythm of drum bass and cymbals. My heart was pounding and vibrating along with the performance. According to the village elderly, the hastening rhythm is intended to create a combatant atmosphere in the arena, urging the "Sir Buffalo" to fight more mightily. Two buffaloes are then led into the stadium from two opposite gates. As soon as they reach the Ngu Phung Flag, the signal to begin the game starts. Like the wind, the two buffaloes run into each other, headbutting, attacking their enemy until one of them will run out of the stadium.

At the age of 14, I didn't pay much attention to the buffalo match or tried to ignore it, as part of it was pretty tense and harsh. Besides, I was uncomfortable seeing the animals hurt. I knew the buffalo have had a good life helps ease some of the tension, but only a little. The selected buffalo for the festival must be between 4 and 5 years old, with a broad chest, big groin, long neck, firm bottom, bow and shapen horns, long tail and so on. Once chosen, the animal will be well-fed, trained, and cared for with respect.

 People were clapping and cheering, and the vibe was uplifting. Randomly, few hawkers passed by; they looked like a mobile shelf with all my favourites snacks: crunchy green ambarella and mango shake with chilli powder, sugar and salt, boiled quail eggs, beef jerky and super refreshing sugar cane juice mixed with kumquat. They tried to grab the audience's attention with their melodious selling voice. The whole scene was a chaotic picture full of clours, movements, boisterous noises mingled with the sticky heat of September.

After many dramatic fights, the buffalo will be sacrificed to Heaven and Earth God in the hope of safety and a good harvest. It is believed that the village-owned the winning buffalo will have a new year full of good fortune. Also, it is widely believed among the locals that eating sacred buffalo meat will bring them lucks.

The buffalo will be butchered into ten different cuts within an hour, either at the back of the villages pagoda or the owner's yard. In less than four hours, the meat will be consumed to ensure its freshness. You might chuckle reading this but, our "Sir Buffalo" is fed with sugar cane, organic grasses, and egg yolk; their training includes sea swimming, running on the beach and hiking. Thus, buffalo meat is lean and tender - the highest quality meat.

Before 1990, all villagers gathered at either the village's Hall or the pagoda to have the feast together. Nowadays, only the elderly, the head of the town, the buffalo owner, and some other key people dine there. In an ordinary family like mine, we have our feast at home; every family member contributes, creating an atmosphere that is busy, loud, messy, with lots of giggles. My job is usually picking fresh herbs, lettuces and star fruits from the garden with my uncle.

Using only buffalo meat and bones to create nearly ten distinctive dishes sounds like an impossible mission, yet it is natural for us to Do Son people. Usually, the buffalo is cooked in various ways such as steamed, grilled, raw like a ceviche, stewed, stir-fried and in a soup or hotpot. What makes each plate unique? The secret is down to cooking technique and different ways of using herbs,  fruits and spices.

Do Son is on an island surrounded by seawater, with a high mountain behind it and four defined seasons. It is blessed with a wide range of crops, wild mountain herbs, and produce that enriches the local cuisine.

The two star- ingredients in cooking buffalo meat are Vietnamese coriander and star-fruit. Vietnamese coriander grows best in warm and damp conditions. The top of its leaf is dark green, with chestnut-coloured spots, while the leaf's bottom is burgundy red. It has a very light pungent, minty taste. It goes perfectly well with the buffalo meat to help reduce the gamey flavour.

We usually use mountain star fruit at the back of the house as they are sharp and sour, with a hint of sweetness, leaving a bit of bitterness at the end of the tongue. We are very picky with our star-fruits as it's the highlight of the buffalo dish: they have to be just right, not too ripened, not too green, firm but juicy.

Buffalo meat cutting and preparation were essential steps to a  good Buffalo meat feast; the direction of the grain and thickness were the most important things that my uncle had to pay attention to. They directly affected the taste of each cutlet.

The tender meat cutlets from the rear leg were the leanest part. They must be sliced thinly and bashed with a big knife once. My mum marinated the meat with star-fruit juice, crushed garlic, ginger, knor powder, black pepper and a bit of lard for half an hour. Then quick stir-fried with shallot on a high heat wok sprinkles some star-fruit slices that already squeezed out the juice, spring onion and Vietnamese coriander. I picked up the first bite, make sure that I had a piece of buffalo, star fruit, and all the herbs. The steam was flying up from the meat. I could smell the garlic and ginger first, then the star fruit and persicaria coming through after. The meat was tender and bouncy, packed with flavour:  garlicky, sour, salty, minty, and a hint of sweetness. It was the dish that its taste and flavour kept lingering in my mind ever since. It was the most popular dish and an original dish of all.

Buffalo shins had a good lean to fat ratio, with the veins running in between the meat like spider webs. My uncle cut them into a cube shape. Then chef mum stewed them with herbs such as ginger, five-spice, goji berry, red jujubes, ginseng and lotus seeds for about 3-4 hours. I tore the baguette dunk it in the hearty warming bowl of stew. The meat became soft, the vein had a light crisp but not greasy, the gravy was thick and rich in flavour. It was an authentic, comforting dish!

The next dish that came out was steam shoulder meat with ginger and lemongrass. I  thought this was the most fun dish, as I got to do my own wrap at the meal. First, rice paper, then lettuce leaves, herbs, a slice of star-fruit and a piece of steamed buffalo meat with lemongrass on top, rolled it into a long tube shape. The sauce to go with this dish was "Tuong ban". Tuong ban was a fermented condiment made of soybean, originally from the suburb of Hanoi and had a salty, umami taste.

Usually,  mum added a little crusted ginger, garlic, chilli, and lime juice dash to enhance the main ingredient without overpowering it. I got the crunch, chewiness, salty, buttery hint of spicy, sour sweetness in one bite. 

Bones and all other bits of the buffalo were not wasted either. Chef mum was simmering them for 3-4 hours with ginger, roasted mung bean with skin. She added a chunk of green sugar cane for the sweetness. There I had a steaming hot bowl of broth; it was a pretty light, smoky taste from roasted mung beans; sipped it once in a while during the meal. It gave a balanced flavour to other dishes.

The Buffalo Fighting Festival,  Do Son people,  the post-festival feast was deeply connected to me as an expat. Every eighth lunar month, I immerse myself and my boys watching the sacred Water Goddess and Tutelary God Worshippinfg rite, the Buffalo Fighting Festival in the sticky heat, then trying all the flavoursome dishes made by the locals. I would love my kids to see, smell, and taste all of those vibes, cuisine, and culture and pass on the next generation this traditional experience, which played a big part in me and the Do Son people.

About the author: Nhung Pham is a freelance food writer based in Marlow – England. Pham feels blessed to have been raised in the town of Do Son surrounded by seawater, with high mountains behind it, with four defined seasons. It has a wide range of crops, wild mountain herbs, and agricultural products, which help to enrich the local cuisine even more. “My soul, childhood memories, and love for food are deeply connected to the land and the people. The Buffalo fighting festival and its feast are historical, empowering and distinctive, reflects the town's land, people, and culture.”

This article is the work of Le Cordon Bleu Online Learning 10-Week Food Writing for Publication course participant Nhung Pham. Le Cordon Bleu is not responsible for the content. The opinion and views are those of the author.

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