Azadirachta indica – The neem tree
Azadirachta indica, commonly known as neem, nimtree, is a tree in the mahogany family Meliaceae. It is native to the Indian subcontinent and most of the countries in Africa, but also occurs in mainland Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, it is known as sầu đâu among other local names.
- Scientific name: Azadirachta indica
- Family: Meliaceae
- Genus: Azadirachta
- English name: neem, nimtree or Indian lilac
- Vietnamese names: sầu đâu, tang liang, teng leng, teng neng, then len
Azadirachta indica is very similar in appearance to its relative, Melia azedarach (chinaberry, Vietnamese: sầu đông, or xoan) or Brucea javanica (Java brucea, Vietnamese: sầu đâu cứt chuột, khổ sâm). Azadirachta indica has white edible flowers and leaves, while Melia azedarach has purple flowers. Both the leaves and flowers of Melia azedarach and Brucea javanica are not consumed as food.
The use of young leaves and flower buds of the neem tree in cooking is particulary popular among the Jrai ehnic community in Vietnam’s Central Highlands where they call the plant tang liang, teng leng, teng neng, or then len. The tree is also well-known in the cuisine of Vietnamese people in southwestern Vietnam where it is called sầu đâu.
Neem leaf salt with weaver ants
The Jrai people have a unique condiment named muối then len or muối then len which is made by pounding salt, slightly-roasted neem leaves, chili and weaver ants (or their eggs) with or without chive bulbs. As one may guess, it has the saltiness of the salt, the slight bitterness of the neem leaves, the pungent taste of the chive bulbs, the sour taste of the ants. The Jrai people may use the condiment with grilled fish, or with some meat dishes such beef ones.
This neem salt condiment is also popular in Phú Yên, a coastal province in central Vietnam.
Neem Flower Buds or Leaves Salad
In Vietnam, this salad is often called gỏi sầu đâu, and is consumed both in Vietnam’s Central Highlands (by the Jrai people), and in the Mekong Delta. The salad is also popular in the neighboring country of Cambodia. The traditional neem flower salad consists of the flowers and the young leaves together with dried fish. In Central Highlands, they often make this salad with dried snakehead fish, or with roasted chicken. In Mekong Delta, there are more choices for fish: snakehead fish (An Giang province), snakeskin gourami (Kiên Giang, Cà Mau, Bạc Liêu, Trà Vinh provinces)… Pork belly and shrimp variations are also available.