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Art of making corn vermicelli kept alive by humble workshop in Vietnam

Thursday, March 11, 2021, 09:57 GMT+7
Art of making corn vermicelli kept alive by humble workshop in Vietnam
Ho Thi Hanh (left) and his father Ho Dac Kia stack bundles of corn vermicelli in their workshop in Phu Yen Province, Vietnam. Photo: Duy Thanh / Tuoi Tre

The ins and outs of making corn vermicelli, a peculiar product in An Dan Commune of Vietnam's Phu Yen Province, seemed to have disappeared for a good 20 years – until a local family poured their efforts into reviving it.

Ho Dac Kia’s household in An Dan Commune is considered the only corn vermicelli producer that remains in the south-central province.

In January, the manufacturing facility of Kia, 83, consistently ran in high gear to satisfy the soaring demand before the Lunar New Year holiday.

Up to six workers, who are all members in his family, worked relentlessly from the early morning until late nights to get the orders done.

Bright yellow threads of noodles are continually churned out of the machine into plastic baskets, then soaked in cold water before being rolled into little nests in Kia's talented hands.

“Making vermicelli all day is tiring since I’m old, yet thinking of the resurgence of corn vermicelli also makes me feel invigorated and blessed,” said Kia, also known as Sau Kia.

The artisan added he learned how to make corn vermicelli from his parents and siblings at a tender age.

“During the hard times, we had no rice to eat," he recalled.

"The people of An Dan then thought of turning corn into noodles to eat instead of rice, as corn is a staple crop in the area.”

The making of corn vermicelli requires cornmeal, which should be ground in a stone pestle and fermented before being molded into bricks.

According to Kia, it takes around five days to turn dried corn seeds into cornmeal ready for vermicelli production.

When compared to the rice-based variety, corn vermicelli boasts more stretchiness, which has helped itself stand out as a delicacy of An Dan Commune.

However, demand for the product started falling off over the years as the intricate and labor-intensive process drove corn vermicelli prices to be at least 2.5 times higher than the rice variety.

After other workshops in the neighborhood dropped out of business, Kia also had to scale down his manufacturing, only working two days a week to cater to loyal customers.

“We stopped producing corn vermicelli for good 20 years ago, as it yielded nominal profit, plus we were understaffed as our kids left home for office jobs,” Sau Kia recounted.

Ho Dac Kia handles threads of corn vermicelli in his workshop. Photo: Duy Thanh / Tuoi Tre

Ho Dac Kia handles threads of corn vermicelli in his workshop in Phu Yen Province, Vietnam. Photo: Duy Thanh / Tuoi Tre

The return

In late 2019, Ho Thi Hanh, Kia’s yougest child, made an attempt to revive the lost trade of her family.

Also serving as the president of the women’s union in An Dan Commune, Hanh was inspired to convince her father and brother to re-launch the family business after discussions with local leaders.

“Making corn vermicelli barely generates profit, not to mention how taxing it is,” Hanh said.

“Yet, the trade would be lost to time once my father is dead, unless he passes on the knowledge to my brother and me.

"We would then strive to keep the trade alive."

After Kia’s approval, the business was revived, albeit to a limited manufacturing schedule of two days a month to test the waters.

Ho Ngoc Thang, Kia’s son, joined his wife to take care of the manufacturing process, while Hanh took up marketing and distribution with a vision of e-commerce in mind.

Thanks to the integration of a corn grinding machine, plus a noodle manufacturing line, the family is now able to provide consistent output for bulk orders.

Kia’s product has now reached other parts of Phu Yen Province, the beach of Nha Trang nearby, and even the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City.

The facility produces around 100-150 kilograms of corn vermicelli per day, but only on the first and 15th day of each lunar month – special dates for Buddhist Vietnamese – as well as big celebrations and holidays.

The production line only operates on other days if a big order is placed.

Kia’s work through the years aggregated a solid customer base, one of whom is Nguyen Thanh Hai from Phu Yen’s Tuy Hoa City.

According to Hai, Kia’s corn vermicelli has an eye-catching gold shade and stretchiness that stands out from normal rice noodles. It also retains texture and the scent of corn even when stored in a freezer.

Hai frequently uses corn vermicelli in vegan recipes, as well as stir-frying dishes with pig intestines, pork, beef or mushrooms.

Nguyen Duc Minh, vice-chairman of the An Dan People's Committee, highly appreciates the efforts of the members of Kia's family in reviving and preserving the lost trade of rice vermicelli production.

An Dan Commune has registered corn vermicelli as its specialty for ‘One Commune, One Product’ (OCOP) – a nationwide program dedicated to promotion of local advantages and specialties – and is working to trademark the product in 2021.

“We hope to introduce this unique product to nationwide customers and help rejuvenate the trade of corn vermicelli production,” Minh said.

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