Vietnam (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
The Vietnamese cuisine has been described as one of the most colorful and diverse in the world. The country's geography, climate, and history all play influential roles in creating its culinary range. The Vietnamese often describe their country as resembling a shoulder pole laden with two rice baskets. In fact, both the northern Red River delta and the southern Mekong River delta are rice-producing regions. The long coastline, rivers, and tributaries have ensured the place of seafood throughout the country, while the distinctive climates and cultures found in the North, Middle, and South, along with Vietnam's mountain-lowland ecologies have produced regional variation in the diet. Finally, Vietnam's relations with China (which controlled it for a thousand years, beginning in 111 B.C.E.), its Southeast Asian neighbors, India, France, and the United States have affected what the Vietnamese have chosen to eat, or been forced to eat, throughout their history.
Philosophy. Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism play an important role in Vietnamese food beliefs, but rural pragmatics are part of even the most cosmopolitan individual's belief system. According to Vietnamese from the countryside, there are two important qualities in food: quantity and taste. The elderly and guests, including spiritual ones, also require more prestigious food than is commonly eaten by everyone else. While the majority of Vietnamese profess a belief in Buddhism, relatively few adhere to Buddhist dietary prohibitions against meat and alcohol. The foods preferred in ancestor worship, and usually placed on an altar with incense and wine, were chicken and rice. These are the same foods that are served to company when possible. Pork is usually served at feasts.
Science. The Vietnamese regard two distinct health systems as scientific: Western medicine as practiced by the French and Westernrained physicians, and thuoc bac, literally "northern medicine," but colloquially "Chinese medicine." According to most sources, thuoc bac incorporates Chinese and Indian (Ayurvedic) traditions, and was possibly influenced by the humoral pathology of the classical Greek physician Galen (12999 C.E.). In this frame of reference, health reflects a balance of two basic elements, am (the Chinese yin)ften translated as "cold"nd duong (Chinese, yang), or "hot." Ill health is the disequilibrium of these forces brought about by incorporating too much am or duong in the body. Foods share these designations, and can either upset the balance through deficit or overindulgence, or be used therapeutically.
A Vietnamese interpretation of the life cycle is that following childbirth, the mother and infant are both cold. As the infant develops, he or she becomes warmer. This warmth peaks in adolescence (teenagers are the hottest), and then the adult begins to cool down, maintaining neutrality
As is true in all humoral systems, the food's temperature has little to do with its qualities of am and duong, boiled water being the exception (water boiled, then cooled, is warming, whereas cool water is cold. Ice is hot!). Most green vegetables are considered cooling; fatty foods such as meat, sugary foods, and red or orange fruits (such as papaya, mango, or watermelon) are considered heating.
A Vietnamese Meal
The majority of Vietnamese cuisine is relatively simple, relying on fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, and steamed white rice. Rice is so important in the diet that the words used to enquire if someone has eaten are an com roi, or, "eaten rice yet?" Fish sauce (nuoc mam) made from fermented anchovies is used much like soy sauce in Chinese cuisine. Few Vietnamese dishes do not include a drop or two, and Vietnamese have often subsisted on little more than fish sauce on rice, when they were lucky enough to have rice.
A typical Vietnamese meal requires rice, soup (with greens), a fried dish of fish, meat, or vegetables, and fish sauce on the side for additional flavoring. This meal would be prepared in sufficient quantity that it would be consumed for lunch and dinner. The primary factors normally taken into consideration when preparing a meal include the number of people needing to eat, their ages and associated needs (according to the theory of am and duong), taste preferences, cost of the foods, and ease of preparation.
The Vietnamese like to eat three meals a day, with breakfast often consisting of a thick rice soup (chau) like the Chinese congee, bread products, or foods identical to those consumed at other times of the day. The Vietnamese appreciate coffee, preferring a dense, slow-dripped preparation mixed with sweetened, condensed milk. Noodles (with or without soup); fresh or dried fruits; salted, roasted seeds; dried squid; and just about any salty, chewy food makes up the snack world.
Tea, various infusions of seeds or herbs (particularly lotus roots or seeds), soft drinks, and beer (usually drunk with ice) are consumed throughout the country, with beer (including the artisanal variety bia hoi) edging out the other drinks in terms of popularity among men in the South. Everyone drinks water, preferably rainwater collected
While rice is the "pearl of heaven," plain cooked rice is not a prestige food. Celebratory foods gain their prestige because of the limited availability of their ingredients or the difficulty of their preparation. Often rice flour cooked into sheets is the basis for delicate preparations, or pounded rice is used to make sumptuous cakes filled with bean paste, pork, or other delicacies. The principal holiday is Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year; it usually occurs in February. A child's first birthday (at which time he or she is considered to be two years old) is celebrated to mark survival of the perilous first year of life, when many infants die. Foods common in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, such as cha gio, which require a lot of preparation, are normally reserved for Tet and first-year celebrations. Coca-Cola (seemingly the only U.S. contribution to Vietnamese cuisine) or beer are the accompanying beverages of choice. Urban birthday meals include colored rice cakes and purchased French layer cake with frosting. And the urban way of celebrating a wedding is to take the entire extended family and other guests to a Chinese restaurant. There eight to ten courses of meat, fish, and poultry, and very little rice, are served.
The North of Vietnam, with its colder climate and proximity to China, is the home of pho, the famous beef broth with noodles and thin slices of meat. Accompanying herbs such as mint, basil, green onions, and bean sprouts grow in the northern climate. Grilled meat and stir-frying are more common food-preparation methods here. There are fewer vegetables and fruits available.
Central Vietnam has an important historical heritage that adds chili peppers, other spices and characteristic presentation style to the cuisine. A "kingly" table consisted of many small dishes instead of a common bowl, which is the "common" (and ubiquitous) way to serve the family. The cuisine of Hue, the ancient capital, is also more seasonal than in the North or South, reflecting not only the availability of vegetables, fruits, fowl, and seafood, but the humoral qualities of people at this time of year as well as the food. The sweet pudding chè, usually made with beans or lotus seeds, hails from this region.
The South's hot and humid climate produces a year-round, changing supply of vegetables, fruits, and livestock. The South is also the social pressure cooker of Vietnam, with a fourteenth-century origin as an Indianized Khmer region, followed by Vietnamese sovereignty in the eighteenth century. The French occupied the region from the nineteenth through the middle of the twentieth century, when the Vietnamese took power again. Dishes such as bánh xèo have been described as a Vietnamese crepe, or an Indian dhosa, depending on how far
The hill tribes of Vietnam, such as the Hmong, are fewer in number today due to their collaboration with South Vietnamese and U.S. forces during the Vietnam War; many were evacuated to the United States at the end of the war. Tribal groups, however, respect national borders less than altitude, and move somewhat freely between Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. They practice slash-and-burn agriculture, raise and consume pigs, and prefer glutinous (sticky) rice, which can be eaten with the fingers, to the long-grain variety preferred by lowlanders, which is always consumed in a small bowl with chopsticks. They trade the products of poppies (seeds; opium) and their renowned silverwork and embroidery for food products from the lowland areas.
It is impossible to not mention that millions of Vietnamese, highland and lowland alike, have known starvation throughout their history. Vietnam's struggle with the Chinese, with the French, with Japanese occupiers at the end of World War II, and with the Americans have resulted for varying periods in outright food shortages or broken distribution systems. Ho Chi Minh was able to gain support for his version of communism in part because of inequalities in the rice trade and widespread hunger in the North. The colonial system introduced many French delicacies to urbanites, but the rural poor subsisted on what they could grow on rented plots or fish from the irrigation canals of the plantations on which they worked for minimal wages.
Global economic downturns aside, Vietnam in the early twenty-first century appears to be well on the way to a stable economy. North-South differences in cuisine are still distinctive, even though the country has been unified since 1977. The hotel restaurant training school in Hanoi is bustling with noontime clients daily, with avocados and French onion soup prominent on the menu. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese now live outside the country, with most settled in the United States, Australia, France, and Canada. Expatriate Vietnamese have brought their cuisine to these countries, where it continues to evolve, incorporating a few local items into the rich Vietnamese culinary inventory.
See also Buddhism; China; Fasting and Abstinence: Buddhism and Hinduism; Rice.
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Claudia C. Parvanta