Lotus cuisine, food for the soul
Drinking tea is a Vietnamese cultural tradition. There are many varieties of tea enjoyed in Vietnam. Among them are Tra sen (lotus tea) and mut sen (sugar-coated lotus seeds), two treasured national favourites.

Tra sen 

Tra sen Hue is a Hue specialty. Enjoying this tea is a traditional ceremonial art of the imperial city.

During the Nguyen Dynasty in the 1800s, imperial maids used to row to Tinh Tam Lake to collect each dewdrop on the sen leaves to make tea. The maids served the tea to kings in a different special tea pot for each of the four seasons.

"Lotus tea has its own summer tea pot, for example," says Nguyen Dac Xuan, 90, an historian specialising in the history and culture of the Nguyen Dynasty.

"Sen flowers grow in all of the country’s rural areas. But a sen tea connoisseur prefers tea scented by sen flowers grown in Tinh Tam Lake, where the lotus flowers are much more aromatic than lotus flowers from elsewhere," Hue expert cook Ton Nu Thi Ha says.

Lotus flowers bloom from early May through June. This is the season when dried tea leaves are traditionally placed in newly opened lotus flowers which are then tied closed to perfume the tea.

"When the lotus flowers opened at midnight, the tea leaves were placed inside the flowers. At 5am these same flowers were then harvested to make tea," Hoang Anh Suong, Xuan’s son, says.

Lotus flowers for fragrant tea should be picked before dawn. Cool air and fog help to preserve the light, pure fragrance of sen. After sunrise, sen loses its fragrance due to the heat.
In the past, lotus tea was only served to kings in Hue.

But sen tea was also well known in Ha Noi’s ancient villages around Ho Tay (West Lake). For example, Quang Ba, Tay Ho and Nghi Tam villages have long been renowned for making lotus-scented tea.

As a result, many Hanoians have known for generations how to enjoy lotus tea in the most sophisticated, precise and stylish way, lotus tea expert Truong Xuan says.

Ho Tay sen (West Lake lotus tea) is considered the most precious lotus tea because of its beauty and aroma.

These days there are new ways to scent tea. The most popular method utilises lotus anthers to perfume tea at home.

There are also many closely guarded secrets for making tasty lotus-scented tea.

One method involves layering dry tea and dry lotus anthers, then wrapping them in water-resistant paper for three days to preserve the delicate fragrance. This process must be repeated seven times for three weeks to make the most perfect sen tea, says Suong who learned this art from his father.

20th century writer Nguyen Tuan praised lotus tea for embodying the highest cultural values of the Trang An (an old name for Hanoi) native people, reflecting the precision, stylishness, elegance and connoisseurship of Hanoian culture.

“Sen tea is the most precious and popular perfumed tea. Sen fragrance embodies the most essential qualities of earth and heaven,” Tuan wrote.

"Lotus plants grow in black mud, but never smell bad. Therefore, lotus represents the most important qualities of sky and earth. This is why lotus roots, leaves and flowers are precious herbs," said Vietnam’s most renowned herbalist, Hai Thuong Lan Ong (1720-1791).

Vo Thi Lua of Ha Noi’s Thanh Xuan District and her husband enjoy lotus tea for its aromatic fragrance, compared to other teas.

“Tra sen is a national heritage which should be preserved,” Lua says.
 
Mut sen tran  

The Vietnamese consider Mut sen tran  (Sugar-coated lotus seeds) one of Vietnam’s greatest gifts to the world.

Tue Tinh (1330-1400), a renowned herbalist of the Tran Dynasty, called the lotus seed a "son of the lotus plant" because it is a nutritious food which helps cool internal body heat, as well as a medicine to treat sleeplessness without harmful side effects.

These treasured seeds are essential for Tet and wedding parties for Hanoians.

Veteran artisan Nguyen Vy, 87, an owner of Ninh Huong which sells the best mut sen tran in Ha Noi, says the food originated in Nanh Village in Ha Noi’s Gia Lam District hundreds of years ago.

After a long history of working with herbs, the village now specialises in making traditional food.

Artisan food-making was interrupted by wars in the past and Vy sometimes had to do other jobs, such as tailoring, to earn a living.

“But we have tried to preserve our tradition of making mut sen tran because it is a noble food left to us by our ancestors,” Vy says.

Dam Hong Lam, 40, of HCM City always remembers to buy several kilograms of mut sen tran as gifts for his relatives and friends.

“My family members often enjoy mut sen tran with sen tea during the Tet holidays when we fully enjoy the essence and spirit of the food."

"My father said drinking astringent tea together with sweet, nutty lotus seed during Tet creates harmony and a peaceful,warm quality,” Lam says.
 
In the box
Hue:
-  Tra Dinh Vu Di
Thien An Eco-Tourism, Cu Chanh village, Huong Thuy town. Phone: (054) 3865703
 
-  Tra That Kim Long
110 Kim Long Street. Phone: (0511) 3692 963

 

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