The Rice Cooking Festival in Thi Cam Village

Thi Cam village now belongs to Tu Liem district, a suburban area of Ha Noi. Starting from Ha Noi, one can visit this village by following highway No.11a, crossing Dien bridge (8 km from Ha Noi), then turning left and going 3 more kilometres along the Nhue River.
Thi Cam village worships Phan Tay Nhac, described in legends as a military commander of the 18th Hung King. When his troops were stationed in Thi Cam area, he organized a rice cooking contest. After his death, Phan Tay Nhac was made the Spirit Protector of Thi Cam village. In his honour, the village organizes every year, on the 8th day of the first lunar month, a rice cooking festival.
Early in the morning the 8th day of the first lunar month, the village notables gather at the communal house with offerings for a ceremony dedicated to the Spirit Protector. Also, a council is appointed, consisting of a number of notables and experienced cooks, to organize and supervise the contest.
Many groups (Giap) in the village take part. Each group has its own leader. All groups dress in traditional tunics – white pants, dark long dresses – but with belts of different colours.
A music band, drums and gongs also contribute to both the liveliness and the solemnity of the contest.
The contest is divided into 3 distinct stages:
– Water fetching contest:
One person from each group takes part. A symbolic military post is set up, and the contestants start running from the post to the bank of the Nhue River, about 1,000 metres. Four big bottles of water await the runners at a designated spot on the bank of the river. The first person back with a bottle wins the first stage for his group.
After completion of the first stage, “Water fetching contest” comes the second stage, the “fire making contest”.
– Fire making contest:
Two people from each group take part with several thin pieces of bamboo and a wisp of straw as tinder. The two people must use the friction between 2 pieces of dry bamboo to make fire. The fire first takes the form of smoke. The men must blow into the fire with the help of the tinder. This was the traditional method of fire-making in rural areas of Viet Nam in ancient times. The group that can produce fire first is the winner of the second stage.
– Rice cooking contest:
This stage comprises three integrated events as follows:
– to turn paddy into rice (by husking, sifting, etc.)
– to whiten the rice.
– to cook rice.
Examiners of the Organizing Committee will taste rice from all rice pots and award the prizes.
In the beginning, 6 people from each group (Giap) take part in the contest. Two persons use a pestle to separate rice, bran and rice husk, and to whiten it. Then a small quantity of rice is used for cooking just enough for a “cult” bowl of rice (which is equal to two bowls of rice). Rice must be cooked with a straw fire, the burning straw enveloping the whole pot in order to ensure that the rice is well cooked. In order to prolong the cooking time and ensure the quality of the cooked rice, the groups usually build many straw fires, making the work of the examiners more difficult and time-consuming.
The third stage lasts for about two hours, and ends with the examiners’ decision on the prize. Then the prize ceremony for the whole festival begins.
Note: The rice-cooking contest is also held in many other villages.
On the banks of West Lake (North of Ha Noi), there are a cluster of 4 villages commonly called as Ke Buoi, Trung Nha, alias Lang Nghe, one of these 4 villages, worships the Spirit Protector of two female military commanders who fought under King Le Dai Hanh (10th century) and holds an annual rice-cooking contest which wokes the custom of the commanders, whose troops cooked rice while marching.
Every year, right after a ceremony dedicated to the 2 Spirit Protectors, the village organizes the cooking contest on the 4th of the 1st lunar month at a place located on the bank of the To Lich river. Each participant is provided with a bamboo log for fuel, an earthem pot and some rice. In accordance with the rules, the participants are unmarried women who walk around while cooking rice and are not allowed to use any cooking stands. Therefore, each girl must tie the root part of a long piece of bamboo to her body while three overhanging “do” resistant creepers link the other end of the bamboo to a bamboo circle intended to support the earthem pot. The whole equipment looks like a fishing rod and line. The bamboo log is burned and held under the pot by each girl, while she walks around place. The whole exercise goes on until the rice is well cooked. The person who is the first to complete the process with a well cooked pot of rice wins the prize.
Tu Trong village (Hoang Hoa district, Thanh Hoa province) also organizes rice-cooking contest, but with its own twist. Unmarried girls compete at cooking rice on a small rocking boat in a pond at the entrance of the village.
On the 30th day of the 12th lunar month, hundred of small basket boats are waiting in the pond. After a drumroll, each girl gets into a small boat, along with two cooking stands, some wet straw, green sugar cane dregs, pots, an earthenware pan (for steaming glutinous rice), and glutinous as well as ordinary rice.
The girls row their boats to the middle of the pond, set up 2 cooking stands, place the pot and the earthenware pan on top; wash the rice, then wait for the second signal. When the second round of drum-beating begins, they start making a fire, and then cook on one stand a pot of glutinous rice and on the other a pot of ordinary rice. Working with speed and skill, the girls finish and quickly row to the bank to hand over their products to the Examiners’ Committee.
The difficulty of the procedure lies in the rocking of the boat, the strong winds in the pond, the wet fuel (straw and sugar cane dregs), and the drizzle that often accompanies time of year. But since childhood, the girls have been trained by their mothers to make fire with wet tinder, revive a dying fire and install the kitchen trivets to take advantage of the wind in order to build and maintain a fire in the most difficult circumstances.
Chuong village (Thanh Oai district, Ha Tay province) holds a rice-cooking contest in the yard of the communal house but under different conditions. Each unmarried girl participant must, while cooking, look after a six-month old baby (who belongs to another family) and, prevent a toad from getting out of a designated circle near the kitchen. In addition, several young men usually try to hamper the work of the girls by teasing the baby or causing the toad to jump away from the circle. The girls must survive all these odds and produce, in due time, a well cooked pot of rice in order to win.
The famous Keo Pagoda, situated in Dung Nhue village (Vu Tien district, Thai Binh province), organizes two festivals, one in Autumn and another in Spring. They involve a culinary contest with the participation of 8 mixed groups (Giap) of young men and women. Immediately after a drum roll, each group arrives at the designated place carrying cooking utensils and materials. When the third round of drum-beating ends, the Chief examiner lights a stick of incense to mark the duration of the contest. Immediately thereafter, 8 young men from the 8 groups start circling the pond 4 times. As they end their fourth round, each must fill a big bottle with water from the pond and bring it back to the group to wash the rice, turning the rice into flour and pies. In the mean time, a girl must rub two pieces of bamboo together to produce fire from tinder. When a fire is successfully created by a group, the eager onlookers greet it with applause. When fire is burning brightly in the kitchens of all 8 groups, people watch closely to see which group produces the desired products within the shortest time. When the incense stick finishes burning, each group must present a tray containing 2 plates of cooked glutinous rice, two bowls of cooked ordinary rice, 2 plates of pie and 4 bowls of compote to the Examiners’ Committee. The end-products must be of good quality: soft, not dry, neither overcooked nor underdone. In particular, the compote must be sweet enough, and the pie tasty and not sticky.
The group that best meets both the timing and quality criteria is given first prize. Those groups that satisfy only one of the two criteria are also given a prize.
Cooking contests vary from festival to village, but they all stimulate young men and women to improve their culinary capacity, to act rapidly, calmly, and efficiently under difficult conditions, including war.

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