Travelogue: Quảng Ngãi

A peek into our sourcing trip to find the best củ nén in Quảng Ngãi

Greetings from the scorching heat of Sài Gòn!

One of our 2024 goals is to add new aromatics to our collection, so we’ve been in Vietnam to visit some of the farmers whom we will be working with. During the first leg of the trip, we visited a farming co-op that specializes in growing củ nén (or củ ném, hành tăm) in Bình Phú, Quảng Ngãi. The region has been growing củ nén for generations, but the co-op was only formally established in 2019 as a mean to better support local farmers.


Freshly harvested củ nén by auntie Lệ 

Although not well-known in other regions, củ nén is a quintessential aromatic in Central Vietnamese cooking. Belong to the allium family, it’s a close relative of chives, garlic, and shallot. Củ nén’s bulbs resemble pearl onions. However, they’re smaller in size and have a light golden hue over their papery skin. When grown, củ nén has chive-like leaves. During the harvest season, the leaves dried out leaving the soil to be filled with nén bulbs.


Left: Freshly harvested củ nén by auntie Chi
Right: Sun drying nén bulbs in front of our parents' home

The day was gloomy when we reached Quảng Ngãi. Luckily, it didn’t rain until we wrapped up our meetings with the farmers. The co-op isn’t centrally located but rather spread out through different parts of Bình Phú commune. Even with the help of Google Maps, it took us a while to find our way as the farms are tucked away from the main roads. Auntie Lệ almost finished with her morning harvest when we got to the field. She greeted us with a big smile as she continued digging. The bulbs grew close to the soil level. And since they’re very small, digging with hands is often the most effective way to harvest. Auntie Lệ employed a piece of tile as her trusted tool while other farmers used soup ladles or spoons. She told us that she had been growing củ nén for most of her life. Her farming method has been passed down for generations and has largely remained unchanged.


Auntie Chi and her daughter Tuyết harvesting củ nén with our local driver

Across the road from auntie Lệ, auntie Chi and her daughter Tuyết had been hard at work digging nén from the early morning hours. They fashioned a large aluminum soup spoon into an instrument with which they shoveled the nén-filled soil. Unlike auntie Lệ, auntie Chi was not originally from Bình Phú commune but married into the village. She had been a nén farmer for as long as she had been married. Auntie Chi had learned everything she knew about this beloved central aromatic from her husband and mother in law. Her daughter Tuyết, who married into a fishing village in Quảng Ngãi, came home for a short visit but somehow found her way back onto the field digging for nén.

Farming củ nén is hard work. Yet both aunties beamed with pride and their voices were filled with excitement while talking about their produce. Củ nén is grown widely in Central Vietnam; but according to the two aunties, the dry and sandy soil in their hometown produces the most fragrant and firm bulbs.

The two aunties taught us how to cook with nén and how to cure a cold using those little bulbs. Thanks to their pleasant sweet scent and mild spicy flavor, củ nén greatly helps removing the fishy taste in seafood and other strong odors in food. It is a must-have aromatic in mì Quảng (Quảng-style rice noodles) and regularly used in braised fish, meat, or seafood. Not only used in cooking, local folks also incorporate those tiny bulbs in traditional medicine as they’re great in curing a cold.


Freshly harvested củ nén.

Along with these two aunties, most of the local farmers are in their 50s or 60s. Young people have been either flocking to big cities or working at factories to earn a more stable income. The farm lands are tended by the elders who are looking forward to their retirement from farming. For a lot of families living in Bình Phú commune, farming would end within one generation. Perhaps in a near future, củ nén will no longer be grown in the region. While it is hard to think about, we are still excited to introduce củ nén to you.

Hopefully, the work that we do will be able to create an additional market for these special bulbs.