The unique dishes of Sapa: A culinary journey

Sapa, located in the northwestern region of Vietnam, may be the country’s premier trekking base, offering you views of endless mountains and rice terraces that take your breath away (literally), cool year-round weather, with a unique culture to get to know.

Little do people know, Sapa’s food culture is unlike any other; One that has been established by the many unique and diverse minority tribes that call Sapa home. So, it’s simple. You must try the food. It will add extra flavor to your visit.

A warm bowl of Thang Co to warm you up 

Sapa is usually quite chilly in the evenings, so a great way to warm up is to enjoy a bowl of thang co, which is also a great introduction to the culinary culture of Sapa. Thang co directly translates to “Soup cooked in a big pan”, and the name leaves out the star ingredient of the dish: Horse.

This dish is a beloved specialty of the H’Mong people, having first appeared perhaps over 200 years ago. It was previously only served during special occasions, however, due to the influx of tourism and foreigner curiosity, the dish is more readily available.

Thang co, Sapa

The main ingredients in this soup are horse meat, simmered bone, blood and organs, concocted with twelve herbs and spices found in the region such as cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and star anise. It takes a couple of hours for the dish to be made, and when served, you will receive a basket of vegetables and a special pepper named Muong Khuong to add to your liking. Our tip: don’t be put off by the rather unpleasant smell, it only serves as a barrier to experiencing the delicious taste. 

You can easily find this dish around Sapa, especially in H’Mong villages and markets. Many restaurants also serve it. A Quynh Restaurant and Moment Romantic Restaurant are two of the more popular ones. Have this with a shot of corn wine (found everywhere, as well). It will calm your nerves so you can really enjoy the dish! 

Snack away on a Com lam

Com Lam is a very simple and cheap, yet delicious dish. It is rice fried in a bamboo tube. This dish originated out of a lack of cooking tools. Before the region started getting developed, getting by was difficult. The tribespeople had to use basic tools made out of natural material for cooking instead of pots and pans, and one of the genius inventions that was thought of, was cooking using bamboo tubes. 

Com lam

To make com lam, the tribespeople spend hours collecting, chopping and cleaning bamboo stems to create the tubes necessary to make this dish. The tubes are about 30 cm in length, and once made, they are stuffed with salted sticky rice. Then, water is added. This water is from the local streams; Extremely fresh and a little bit sweet.

The tube is then covered in banana leaves and continuously rotated on a fire so the rice comes out well cooked and fried. The burnt bamboo stem is then removed. Com lam goes well with salted, roasted sesame seeds, grilled pork or chicken skewers. It is easy to take with you as a snack during a trek, or even as a souvenir back home. Trust us, you may want to. 

While you can find com lam everywhere, especially in street stalls, you can also try them at certain restaurants. A Quynh Restaurant is again a popular option. The Hill Station is another.

Xoi bay mau: The most colorful dish you will see

This dish originated from the Nhung people that are known to inhabit the Muong Khuong district of the Lao Cai province. It is essentially steamed glutinous rice that comes in seven different colors: Pink, light red, dark red, indigo, yellow-green, green and yellow. It is cooked as an offering to be presented to ancestors of the tribespeople and their agricultural deities, in return wishing for a comfortable life and an abundant harvest. 

Colorful terraced rice fields, Sapa

What’s extra special about this dish is that the colors are made without any kind of chemical intervention, but rather with natural ingredients. Different leaves found in the forest are used, that in addition, bring distinctive flavors of the mountains to each colored rice.

The glutinous rice that the dish is made of is also planted only one time a year, making the dish even more special. This is why it is mostly served during important occasions and is thought to bring you luck. However, thanks to curious tourists, you can now find this rice in many places. Try it at The Hill Station.

A strange name for a food: Thit lon cap nach

Thit lon cap nach directly translates to “pig brought by the armpit.” Yeah, you might be wondering about the odd name of this dish. It owes its name to the fact that farmers would carry their pigs under their armpits to the markets for sale, and the buyers take them home essentially in the same way. This is also a sight you are likely to see when you are exploring the tribal villages of Sapa. If you were wondering whether your dish is going to taste a little… armpitty, you can see that the name has nothing to do with the taste. 

This dish is essentially roasted (or grilled) pork, and to make it, the whole pig is roasted directly over charcoal. The roasted thit lon cap nach is the color of honey, the skin becomes brittle and crunchy while the meat inside is soft and sweet, delicious and fleshy. Before roasting, the pig is marinated carefully in a variety of spices. The dish goes well with some rice wine. 

Roast pork
©Charles Haynes/Flickr

The best thit lon cap nach is found at Anh Dung Restaurant. You can try it with some men men, another specialty of the region which is rice made of corn. To make this, the locals grind the corn to remove the grit – a painstaking process – and once done, put it in a pan with some water and steamed two times. It ends up with a distinct sweetness and softness, which goes well with the armpit pork.

Have you ever tried buffalo meat?

Thit trau gac bep literally means buffalo meat hanging in the kitchen. Very descriptive, right? During the rainy season in Sapa, food is sparse, and the need arose to preserve food. Originally from the Black Thai people of Sapa, this dish is made by marinating buffalo meat in a special dressing and then drying it. The marinating sauce helps to preserve the meat for the entire rainy season that often lasts up to 8 months! However, the meat can be even stored for years. 

Buffalo meat
Buffalo meat | ©Tracy Hunter/Flickr

When ready to eat, the meat can be grilled, stewed and roasted into many dishes and the cooking process gives off a distinctive smell. The meat ends up looking dark brown and worn out on the outside, but on the inside it is red and juicy. It is still a little tough and chewy, but delicious.

Fansipan Restaurant is known to serve delicious dried buffalo meat. You can enjoy this with mam da, a vegetable with a similar but sweeter taste to broccoli, and found only in the region. When fried with buffalo meat, the sweetness infuses into the meat. Yum!

Not your ordinary chicken

Ga den is an absolute must-try. Black chicken (or black bone silky fowls) are like your ordinary chickens, except smaller, about 1.2kg and wears a coat of black feathers. When they are grown in the region, they are allowed to roam free and seek their own food, resulting in a meat that is fragrant and delicious when cooked. 

Black chicken
Black chicken soup | ©Taiyo FUJII/Flickr

This black chicken can be cooked into many dishes through many methods such as boiling, steaming, and frying. Grilled black chicken marinated in honey is one of the best dishes Sapa offers. Dip each piece in a mixture of salt, pepper and lime juice to add that extra kick. Anise Sapa Restaurant serves silky fowl dishes in its menu.

Down everything with Tao Meo wine

All of the dishes above go well with a shot (or a bottle) of tao meo wine. This delicious (and absolutely potent) drink originated from the H’Mong people. To make it, assam apple which is found naturally in the Hoang Lien Son Mountain range is harvested and fermented. The apples are only available from August to October, and the wine is extracted after six to eight months of fermentation. Take it easy when you try this – you don’t want to overdo it and deal with a hangover the next day.

Tao Meo Wine
©Aviva West/Flickr

There is much to explore. The foods mentioned in this list are an absolute must-try when you visit Sapa during your journey around Vietnam. Keep an open mind to trying new things and enjoy them slowly. Think about the stories and the people behind them as you take each bite. While Sapa is stunning, perhaps it may be the food that will make you come back time and time again.

Piumi Rajapaksha

Piumi Rajapaksha

Third-culture kid, hailing from Sri Lanka. Currently residing in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and refuses to leave because of the good food. You'll probably find her wandering aimlessly through the city with a coffee in hand looking lost, but she never is.
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