Litsea cubeba – The aromatic peppercorns that smell like lemongrass
Litsea cubeba (aka the aromatic litsea) is an evergreen tree, about 5-12m tall, in the family Lauraceae. Litsea cubeba is know as màng tang in Vietnamese. In Quảng Ngãi province, the plant is also called sả rừng, literally means wild lemongrass because its peppercorns smell like lemongrass.
In Vietnam, the tree grows wild in high mountain forests, as in Lào Cai, Lai Châu, Hà Giang, Kon Tum, Lâm Đồng provinces. It has also been planted in a number of farms as a shade tree for tea plants, and in some places, for its fruits’ essential oil. Both the leaves and fruits are used to extract essential oil, but the quality of the leaves is of low quality. Its wood can be used to make furniture and handicrafts. Some parts of the plant are used medicinally.
Litsea cubeba peppercorns are harvested in Quảng Ngãi province by the Hre and K’dong ethnic minorities in the mountainous districts of the province. In July, when the summer sun is at its most intense, it is also the time to harvest the fruits. The aromatic litsea peppercorns can be used a spice just like lemongrass, not pepper.
Aromatic litsea peppercorns are present in many delicious dishes of the highland people. The peppercorns can be cooked as is or get crushed or ground. They can be a spice in fish and meat braise dishes, can be used to marinate grill dishes, and also can be used to make salt condiment.
In Quảng Ngãi, snails can be steamed with aromatic litsea peppercorns while in other parts of Vietnam, the dish is cooked with lemongrass stalks.
And the most noticeable dish is water buffalo stir-fry dish. Thinly sliced buffalo meat marinated with little salt, finely ground black pepper, MSG, minced garlic, sugar and Litsea cubeba peppercorns. When the peanut oil is heated, add some fried onions, then add the marinated buffalo meat and stir until the meat is cooked, season to taste, then remove from the stove and add some herbs. That is how the dish is done.