Vietnamese rice wine ruou can

It’s that time of year again. That time when we can be glad we’re (largely) spared the shopping madness of certain other countries. But it’s also party time, and so a good time to be in the middle of one of the world’s enthusiastic drinking cultures. Now it’s true that in Vietnam beverages like wine, beer and gin are relatively recent arrivals. But tippling is as old as the hills here. And the standard old tipple, for old and young alike, has always been some form of rice alcohol.

If you’ve been to a wedding or a funeral or a birthday party here (and most of us have, this being a hospitable society) you’ve knocked back some kind of ruou. It comes in many guises, and many tastes. It might be clear to milky white in colour. It might include starches other than rice, such as sweet potato or cassava. It might be spiced with secret jungle herbs that are known only to secret jungle grandmothers. It might have gone down smooth as water or burned a hole in your esophagus. But you clinked glasses and shouted “mot, hai, ba, yo!” And you probably asked for more. I know I always do.

My personal favourite rice hootch is called ruou can. I first tasted it at a wedding in Da Lat. “We call this liquor can,” the host told me, “because we drink it through a can.” A can is a straw made from a piece of long, slender bamboo. “We call the bamboo quan tu,” he said. “Quan tu means a noble man. You understand? The bamboo is straight and elegant, strong and useful, like a noble man should be.”

I tasted, sucking hard through a 1.5-metre-long can straw. It was bittersweet; not too strong, but still warming in the gut. Moonshine never made me feel so noble. I wondered if there was any meaning to the fact that the several can straws stuck into the 5-gallon clay pot of hooch had been bent by steam and fire into sinuous curves. Perhaps a noble man must be flexible. I sipped and pondered. Pondered and sipped. Ah! Enlightenment. Without the curve in the straw, our noble drinker would have to stand up and bend over just to wet his whistle. But my party and I sat on little stools in the host’s house and comfortably boozed it up.

Can alcohol has long been regarded as a country bumpkin’s tipple. But lately, specialty shops have been offering it and smart restaurants in major cities have been providing it for those who ask ahead. If you walk into a restaurant, or home or wedding or other function, and see on the table what looks like a large flowerpot (che) holding only the wilted stems of giant flowers, it’s a good bet there’s a can party in the offing. If you look interested (or interesting) you may be handed a straw and invited to join the little suck-fest. And it is a very convivial way to drink, rather like two straws in a milkshake for a pair of lovers.

Most ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands make can and use it for all kinds of celebrations and religious rituals, or simply for receiving guests. Its taste and alcohol content will vary, like moonshine anywhere, according to the maker and the season. But the process is the same throughout the Highlands: soak sticky rice in water overnight; add some cleaned rice husks and steam the mixture to a porridgey mass; add water and yeast made from the leaves of bastard cardamom; pour it all into a che; cover and wait two weeks. Spend the intervening fortnight gathering noble men in the forest, and teaching them the virtues of flexibility. Yo!

As a specialty of the Highlands around Da Lat, ruou can is not available in every watering hole in Ho Chi Minh City. During the holidays many tourist restaurants will offer it. Those at Thanh Da tourist island in Binh Thanh District are good bets. Some of the big hotels have offered it in the past with holiday buffets. And there are a few shops around town where you can buy your own to take home and practice nobility. The cost is about VND 100,000 for a one-litre crockery pot full. And the pot itself makes a fine addition to your bookshelf or flower balcony.

Check out the following places for some ruou can:

Van Phong Dai Dien Lau 1:

A21, Cu Xa Lam So, Go Vap District (hem 220)

Ruou Can Dak Lak, 300 Duong D5, Binh Thanh District

Dac San Da Lat, 133/36 Le Hong Phong, District 5. 

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