When traveling to the northern mountainous areas, many people may immediately think of black sticky rice cake – a special dish made by Tay ethnic group in Van Ban District, Lao Cai Province.
Not only is it a delicious dish, but the Tay ethnic minority’s black sticky rice cake is also considered a local cultural symbol and is often made and shared during festive events.
The cake with Tay people’s imprint
Traditional rice cake-making workshops are mushrooming in the area, and among the most well-known is the one owned by Hoang Thi Hue in Khanh Yen Town. Hue sells her products locally and in neighboring provinces and cities.
Her product has been granted a provincial-level, three-star One Commune One Product (OCOP) certificate for its good quality and clear origins.
“Presently, there are diverse kinds of sticky rice cake in the northern province of Lao Cai, yet the cakes made in Van Ban continue to have a more impressive colours and distinguished taste than the ones made in other localities,” Hue said.
According to the artisan, her careful selection of ingredients and a secret tip handed down through generations has contributed to her success.
The black sticky rice cakes are made from locally-produced Cam Dương sticky rice, mung beans, fresh pork, dong leaves, spices, and a special powder produced from burnt flour of the nuc nac or Indian Trumpet Flower, that creates the cake’s black colour.
Locals gather the wild nuc nac plant, dry it, burn it down to coal and then pound it down into a black powder. The powder is then mixed with sticky rice, which is then wrapped in dong leaves in the square, round or cylinder shapes.
The cake is boiled for around 10 to 12 hours. Once cooked, the sticky rice combines with the yellow or green beans, fatty pork, pepper, dong leaves, and the nuc nac powder to produce a hunger-inducing fragrance.
Hue said the nuc nac powder helps keep the black sticky cake fresh longer than other cakes, seven to 10 days at room temperature in winter, and three to five days in summer.
Hue also explained that the nuc nac powder is thought to have antibiotic and anti-inflammatory qualities, making it a popular kind of herbal medicine.
Fortune from cakes
Hue said that her workshop has been busier since she received assistance from the start-up support program of the Lao Cai and Van Ban District’s Women’s Unions in 2018. Another support from the Australian Government-funded Gender Responsive Equitable Agriculture and Tourism (GREAT) Program has allowed her to expand her business.
Before her involvement with the Women’s Unions and GREAT, Hue made dozens of cakes by herself to sell at a nearby market. She earned VND2-3 million (US$86-130) per month, but this income fluctuated and was not stable.
“The Women’s Unions and GREAT provided me with training in business management, sales, and marketing, and arranged for me to visit successful enterprises to learn from their experience. I also participated in trade fairs where I could introduce my products,” Hue said.
Hue has set up a network of regular wholesale buyers, not only in Lao Cai Province but also from the bigger cities, including Hanoi.
Now, on a busy day, Hue’s workshop uses up to 400kg of sticky rice to make the cakes, and she employs eight local women. Her monthly average income now is VND16 million ($707).
Pham Thi Mai Tuyet, 31, a neighbor and employee, said she now has a more stable income of around VND4 million ($177) per month. This income along with what she earns from farming allows her a comfortable life.
“I feel happy and want to work here long as I have extra income all year round,” Tuyet said.
Hue admitted she had not been very good at business communications and marketing prior to her involvement with GREAT. “I could only make and receive phones,” she said. “I did not have any knowledge of how to advertise my products through digital channels and apps such as Zalo, Viber or Facebook.”
GREAT has since equipped Hue with these skills. Now her client contact is primarily undertaken via these channels. Its influence has also gone as far as encouraging Hue’s husband to become more involved in the business.
“GREAT has talked with us on gender and now my husband actively helps me in the production process,” she stated. Hue said she feels happy now as she can earn a stable income of around VND16 million ($707) per month.
“Everything in my house has been brought with the income earned from the sticky rice cake making,” she added.
Hue hopes to create more jobs for local women by increasing her production capacity, which means her demand for rice and other ingredients would also rise, providing further income generation opportunities to the locals.
Deputy Chair of the Van Ban District’s Women Union, Vi Thị Loan, expressed her appreciation for GREAT’s support. “I think the Program has gained some encouraging results,” she said.
“Hue is now very confident when communicating with clients. We will help other women in the village to produce black sticky rice cakes like Hue’s workshop model.”
Loan went on to say that the workshop will not only support the Tay ethnic group to earn income from their traditional cuisine tradition, but it will provide opportunities to improve the quality of life in these communities by contributing to poverty alleviation.