Can Tho is the largest city in the Mekong Delta, and as such has
long been known as Tay Do, which means Capital of the West.
It’s big on scenery too, as I found out on a recent visit, and has retained its
picturesque nature and escaped relatively unscathed by the rampant
industrialization that has blighted much of Vietnam.
Situated on the south bank of the Hau River, the largest branch of the Mekong
Delta, Can Tho is a breezy, comfortable town permeated by the fresh smell of
nature and the abundance of trees and waterways that characterize the delta.
Yet perhaps what makes Can Tho memorable to many visitors is the region’s simple
On my short trip to this enchanting land, the locals spoke highly of several
eating places of the town. I couldn’t help but notice that they all recommended
a dish named Thạch Sùng chắt lưỡi, which literally means “gecko clicks tongue”.
Keen to see how good the dish was and why it had such name, I headed off to Chi
Tôi restaurant in the heart of Can Tho.
It wasn’t a big place and certainly not one of those concrete monstrosities that
are all too common these days. Chi Tôi (My elder sister) was a cozy enclave of
trees, ponds and bamboo huts.
These open-sided huts with their dining tables and chairs also made of bamboo
and other wood could each fit eight people in comfort beneath their roofs of
leaves or straw.
I chose a hut that looked out onto a small pond populated with a variety of fish
and water plants, and placed my order for Thạch Sùng chắt lưỡi.
“Why it had such name?” I asked a waiter. “Because the dish is served in a
cracked earthenware pot, the thing that we know from the story of Thạch Sùng. I
think you remember that, don’t you?” he replied.
Yes, I did remember. As a Vietnamese, the old tale did not sound strange to me
The story goes that Thach Sung and his wife were dirt poor beggars who lived in
a hovel. Apart from the little money they could put aside from their daily
takings in the streets, their most valuable possession was an old cracked
earthenware pot in which they cooked their frugal meals.
Day by day, as they were crafty and thrifty, their tiny stash started to grow
and became quite a substantial sum.
One evening, Thach Sung chanced to see an omen that foretold of heavy rain and
flooding within the year, of the farmers losing their rice crops and the people
going hungry. He and his wife decided to gamble their entire nest egg, built up
over the years, on buying rice to store in a safe place.
Sure enough, the rain came with the flood, and the rice in the fields was
destroyed, so Thach Sung retrieved his rice and sold it at exorbitant prices.
With substantial capital, the prosperous price gouger became a loan shark and
the wealth piled up. And with money came elevated social status for the former
One day, Thach Sung made a wager with the king’s brother-in-law Vuong that he
was the richer of the two. The bet would be settled by comparing their
possessions and the loser would forfeit all his worldly wealth to the other.
Each man then brought out his most valuable possessions to compare with the
other’s. Eventually it seemed that Thach Sung was victorious as he still had
much treasure to display whereas Vuong seemed to have nothing more to show. But
Vuong had an ace up his sleeve: he knew Thach Sung's history.
The crafty Vuong then stunned his opponent by bringing out an old cracked
earthenware pot, the thing that once was most valuable toThach Sung, who had
long forgotten about it as he had thrown it away when he got rich.
Thach Sung stared in shock at the old pot and the awful truth dawned on him that
he would lose everything to Vuong. Words failed him and he just sputtered and
kept clicking his tongue until he died and turned into a gecko that never
stopped clicking its tongue in regret.
So now, when Vietnamese people hear the sound of a clicking tongue, they think
of a gecko and remember the tale of the fool who lost everything because of an
old cooking pot.
During the ten minutes I recalled my mind of the story, the food had arrived.
In front of me was definitely an old cracked earthenware pot, though smaller
than what I’d thought it would be, and it was resting on a glazed terra-cotta
dish as it was quite hot.
Inside the pot was a concoction of crackling, fish sauce, green onion and red
chili. I found out that the dish is made by cooking fish sauce and sugar and
only adding the green onion, chili and fried crackling when it is served.
Of course it was salty owing to the fish sauce yet, in the typically southern
style, it was quite sweet too.
But what makes the dish special is the accompanying pancake of what appeared to
be the burnt rice stuck together at the bottom of a cooker when it is overdone.
This brand of burnt rice is created in a different and intentional way. First
the rice is cooked normally, then spread thinly across the bottom of a large
frying pan to form a layer and cooked carefully until its surface is light
yellow and there’s a touch of burnt rice in the aroma it gives off.
Oh, and Thạch Sùng chắt lưỡi is eaten with the hands only. No spoon, no fork, no
knife, no chopstick.
After examining the contents, I took a piece of the crunchy burnt rice, which
was still hot, soaked it in the sauce and used it as a spoon to get the green
onion and crackling.
It was delicious. My taste buds savored every sensation: the salty sweetness of
the sauce, the greasy crackling, the crunch and fragrance of the hot burnt rice
and the mild spice of the red chilies.
Taking a look around, I saw many patrons in the other huts were enjoying it too.
After a while, I found myself staring at a man sitting nearby who was obviously
relishing his Thạch Sùng chắt lưỡi. He gave me a friendly smile and with no
hesitation said: “Coming here would be pointless if we didn’t have this, no?”
To me, that southern gentleman was spot on. It’s a memorable dish and worthy of
all the compliments it receives.
Address: Chi Toi restaurant, 118/9/48 Tran Van Kheo Street, Ninh Kieu District,
Can Tho City.
Source: By Minh Nga, Thanh
Nien News (The story can be found in the March 8th issue of our printed