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The Festival of Soul and Senses Kitchen Culture in Vietnam Eating is a Religion! « Ngoc Ha Jade River
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The Festival of Soul and Senses Kitchen Culture in Vietnam Eating is a Religion!

Not even GOD is punishing while we are eating…!” (Vietnamese Proverb)

Suddenly, at 11 o’ clock in the morning, the city of over 8 million inhabitants Ho Chi Minh City is getting even more hectic. Motorbikes rush through the streets in bright cascades, steered by happy faces with laughing children on their laps. Best friends see off each-other right in the middle of a conversation with an apologizing glimpse: “You know, it’s 11…” People, who don’t make it home, quickly give their order in small street-cafes around the corner – the taxi driver, who has been waiting in vain for customers the whole morning, suddenly has no time and rushes off. What’s the matter here? Of course – it’s lunchtime!

Vietnam has many religions and philosophical directions. Who-or whatever, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Communist, Worshiper of Ancestors, or mostly all together – they all carry-out one religion: the love towards eating. And this is maybe the only real connection, holding together the plenty interesting andversatile frames and ethnic groups of the Vietnamese society – one eats passionately.

One eats big and passionately to every occasion. For family visits, at New Year (Tet) for example, the family members are welcome with a gorgeous meal and also seen off with such a big feast. When somebody is born, falls in love, marries or dies – a great meal is being served. When there’s something to celebrate or just out of the room: let’s go eat!

The Vietnamese know: “An unwritten law in Vietnam guarantees each Vietnamese three meals a day.” I know that this is exaggerated in some way, but if it exists, it’s probably the law the Vietnamese respect the most of all decrees.

Nowhere else in the world, there are so many different possibilities and opportunities to eat like in Vietnam.

“When you see a bowl of rice, you’re looking into heaven”, is a Vietnamese saying and this is meant in a culinary and spiritual way. And the Vietnamese kitchen deserves this claim because it is maybe the most variable and interesting kitchen in Asia. It’s at least the best guaranteed in concerns of health – only daily fresh products are being used.

Three times a day

The Vietnamese starts his eating-daily routine in the early morning, often at 6 o’clock in the morning after his morning exercise. Then the restaurants and small street shops selling Pho get their customers. This is a soup with rice noodles and either pork- beef or chicken meat pieces.

But it’s not just a simple soup; in the middle of the night, mostly at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, water is poured into the saucepan, bones and some mysterious herbs, which are never revealed by any Phoexpert, are added. Then, all is cooked slowly on small flame until the morning.

The Pho tastes even better if it is cooked on a three legged stool, made out of clay and bamboo and filled with hot charcoal. These cookers obtain a wonderful consistent heat – “Slow Food” in Vietnamese, nice and slow. And to this hefty soup, which takes its two or three hours, the white or yellow, flimsy or flat rice noodles are added when given out. Finally some fine slices of beef and a piece of a pig’s foot are thrown into the soup.

Every region in Vietnam has its own Pho. In the south it tastes a little sweetish whereas in the north it is more spicy and hefty. In the middle again, there’s Bun. This word actually designates the flat noodles, but in the emperor’s city Hue or in Nha Trang at the sea in the middle of Vietnam, this Bun is famous with a hefty soup. Filmy cut Julienne-vegetables, which are served blanched, can be added individually.

This Bun as described is, according to the Vietnamese, a Bun without “driver”. If a driver joins in, it means that a piece of a pig’s foot and a piece of pork shoulder or some pieces of Vietnamese home-made sausage tasting similar to the French Lyoner Sausage, is added to the Bun.

This breakfast would already be enough for the day for most Europeans – but the Vietnamese are getting hungry again at 10:30. It’s lunchtime…!

This is the real deal – Com is served, a complete precious rice table. Steamed rice is served to everything. Just one comment on this: no rice out the cooking-bag! Vietnam has about 30 to 40 different sorts of rice and all of them smell totally different. A culinary rice paradise to explore.

Of course there’s not only rice for lunch. On top of the rice, freshly steamed vegetable, for example Rau Muong, the Vietnamese water spinach, roasted firmly with garlic is served. You can also get Kho Qua, a slightly bitter hull, similar in shape to our Paprika (bell pepper). It is claimed to keep your body cool and relaxed. It is cut to thin pieces and is served with a soup containing some crayfish-meat.

Certainly a fresh fish can’t be missed out – either a kingfish, which was used to ride on to heaven by the famous sisters Trung who defeated the Chinese in 1000 B.C. – its fillet is tender and slightly sweetish. Or the Basa or Tra, the Vietnamese white Mekong Catfish, served caramelized as cut in a clay-pot.

Moreover, you certainly get prawns in all forms – steamed and grilled. Crayfish and Soft-shell Crab, cooked or stewed in a soup with a kind of glass-noodles, called Mien, are also put onto the table. Normally there’s a bit of slightly spicy chicken (Ga in Vietnamese) and Ca, these are white salt-preserved eggplants, which are eaten besides.

There’s a dip to every meal. Nuoc Mam, the clear Vietnamese fish sauce, distilled in a special way out of
small fish, is obligatory on the table. But all sorts of chili sauces and self-made lemon sauces are served as well, the spectrum is endless. The Vietnamese dips it all and what’s dipped in what can be called a science. No limits are set for creativity…

The Vietnamese principle of enjoying is to delight body and soul. One serves according to the Ying- and Yang principle of duality: something hot is next to something cold, a spicy dish is equalized by a mellow dish, something grilled is put next to something steamed – all comes to the table together. There is no order of dishes, one eats happily of everything.

And for dessert? There’s always fresh fruit, different from one season to the other, and afterwards a cup of ambrosial jasmine- or lotus tea. As the case may be, served hot or cold with ice.

Drinking during lunch is mostly frowned upon. Vietnamese have a simple explanation for that: “One can eat less! The drink takes up space in the stomach – this would be a pity!”

After lunch, everybody sleeps – siesta. Who’s surprised?! One restarts work after one or sometimes, if one can afford, two hours of rest.

At late afternoon it’s time to eat again. One gets home at 5 p.m. takes a bath or a shower and the procedure restarts. Normally one eats the things which haven’t been finished at lunch or – like in our case – one goes out for dinner with friends.

In every city in Vietnam there are low-priced restaurants on every street corner, which mostly are operated in the evening. They reach from shops with crab-soup made out of freshwater crabs with spicy vegetables at “Mamma Hai” around the corner, where the neighborhood meets, to the garden restaurant, where the second soup-specialty is served; the Lau

By the way, in Vietnam people eat with chopsticks, but also with spoons in combination with chopsticks when eating a soup. Some can even use both at the same time – pick up the noodles and the meat with the chopsticks and slurp the soup with the spoons.

This then is an opportunity to raise the glasses. Vietnamese like drinking beer. The majestic dignity over the beer tables belongs to one man – Mr. Heineken. He makes the Heineken and the “Tiger” beer, two of the most famous kinds in Vietnam. Furthermore there’s ”333” (Ba Ba Ba in Vietnamese) and “Saigon” beer, but also numerous regional brands from north to south.

The Vietnamese lets his beer being served by beer-ladies, young girls, who become more and more beautiful the more beer is flowing. And a lot is served. Two, three crates of beer per table of 10 to 15 people are not rare. One says “cheers”, “Do” in Vietnamese. For that, everybody gets up from their seats with the filled glass in their hands and yells out the battle call “Do” (sounds like “Yoooooo!”) – as long as one is still able to stand.

Besides, Lau is served. Of course it is possible to have this soup without carousal. But with beer it’s also great fun. Lau, unlike the Pho, a fish soup: A fire-pot, kept hot by a flame is filled with fish broth and put onto the middle of the table. Pieces of fish, freshly cut vegetables and often pumpkin flowers and the famous rice noodles of different shapes and tastes, prawns and other seafood like squid are added.

The Lay is done on the table, quite similar to the French Fondue. The fish and vegetables are put in the broth, shortly cooked and then served in bowls of rice. Everybody picks these delights as long as there’s still something in the pot and afterwards, fruits come to the table, again.

And you can sip a Café Sua Da besides, a coffee with sweetened milk (Sua) and ice (Da).

This is a small mocha, which slowly flows through a cup filter (this takes time and teaches Asian patience!) and settles down on a basis of sweet thick-milk. After the coffee has flown through the filter, the mixture is being stirred and poured into a glass of ice-cubes. You might also have it without ice and enjoy it pure and hot.

Vietnam today is already the second biggest coffee producer in the world, right after Brazil. After plenty of gourmet pleasure, the necessary tiredness is achieved – sweet dreams, just think of next morning’s Pho!

The Vietnamese proverb says: “Every man sometimes needs Pho and Com, his wife’s love and the smile of a nice lady from the Pho-shop next door…!

Influences and Habits

Certainly, the most scurrile story about the Vietnamese kitchen is from these days, when a delegation of war-veterans from America visited the country for the first time after 30 years. They were invited over a cup of tea by the President of Vietnam Tran Duc Luong and they expressed their astonishment about how much the country evolved in beauty today.

One of them obviously enjoyed the meal a lot and he said at the tea table: “My god, we had been bombing the best cooks in the world!”

Many Europeans think that Asia has one common kitchen. Countless so-called Asia- restaurants support this way of thinking. Or one makes up his idea of Asian kitchen considering China-restaurants, which actually make Thai-food or Thai-restaurants, which offer a mixture of Indian and Chinese food or Vietnamese restaurants, which orientate on a US-influenced Thai kitchen. Sushi-bars with horribly old fish on old rice on the band also give support to these misinterpretations.

This is not Asia. The biggest continent of all has thousands of kitchens.

These are the main-directions:

  • China: mainly slowly cooked food high in fat, a lot of chicken and freshwater fish.
  • India: much milk- and Curry-sauce, a lot of meat, all cooked slowly.
  • Thai: slowly cooked and fresh kitchen, very spicy sauces, overlaying taste.
  • Japan and Korea: Many raw products and Tempura (fried) and fire-pots.

Vietnam is so different and has very little in common with the most other Asian kitchens. The only connection is that it has been influenced by three major-kitchens, the Chinese (mostly in the north), the Indian (of the Cham in the middle and of the Khmer in the south) plus the French colonial-kitchen (everywhere).

France taught the Vietnamese a lot. How to plant coffee and tea or how to handle coconut and pepper plantations for example. China took influence on methods of cooking, regarding diversity and in often bringing the fish- and meat products to the kitchen alive. And India innovated with its band-width of herbs. However, Vietnam’s kitchen is so different.

The Vietnamese Baguette for example, which may only be available this fresh and crunchy in Paris is called Banh My. It is sold with fresh vegetables and sausage or fish and a spicy sauce on every street corner. In fact, there is original Brioche and all the other French bakery goods everywhere, but they are “Vietnamized” right away, either with roll covering s and fillings (like coconut- and bean-mush) or with domestic herbs and sauces.

Vietnam enshrines freshness. No product survives the day. The prawns are delivered to the kitchen alive are killed just before they are served along with the meal. Vegetables are being blanched, never cooked – mostly they are eaten half-raw, “al-dente” style. Furthermore Vietnam has the habit of serving fresh, raw leaves to the meal. Leaves from trees or shrub, which are put into the meal at the table or eaten separately, dipped and raw.

These herbal leaves own very different tastes and often they are actually medical herbs supporting digestion and general well-being. Vietnam tries to make its kitchen an experience of health. One knows exactly about the different effects on the body and employs them consciously.

Mainly, one differentiates between cold and hot dishes, which has nothing to do with cooking of the product but with its effect on the body.

Papaya is a cold product, Mango and Sau Rieng (Dorian) and Chom Chom (Rambutan) however are hot; Rau Ma, a special vegetable is cold and Thanh Long (Dragon-fruit) and bread is always hot.

Vietnam has a fresh, basic peasant’s kitchen; one orientates on what the field, river, pond and sea gives to the people throughout the year. That’s why season- like change is self-evident and everyday-life. Each day, something different is expected on the table, not the same the whole year.

Eating in Vietnam is always another surprise.

Vietnam’s kitchens are, just like the flats, often very small. A fire place, a Bep Dat , a three legged claycooker, filled with charcoal, a table-hearth with a maximum of two butane-gas fired cooking-plates is luxury already. One uses the gas instead of electricity in order to guarantee, that it is always possible to cook – even when there is no electricity.

Everybody cooks together – at least all the women. There surely is no Vietnamese woman, who isn’t capable of cooking. She learns it just after walking from mother and grandmother. One has fun cooking, no matter how long it takes. The most complicated vegetables are cleaned cumbrously, all by hand; no electronic kitchen devices – often not even fridges, what for?! Whoever has witnessed the Vietnamese women handle the simple kitchen-knife, when filleting and portioning, can’t stop marveling.

The kitchen is blinking clean – no rubbish or dirty dinnerware from yesterday is lying around. The Vietnamese take kitchen hygiene very seriously, even in the simplest peasant-huts. The food is being prepared in the morning, right after arriving from the market. At lunchtime it is being quickly being finished in the wok or pot. Everything in Vietnam is “Fast Food” because it is being cooked quickly and eaten immediately.

Markets and Regions

Vietnam has different kitchen-regions – in major, there are three. They are defined from north to south. The southern kitchen of Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong-Delta is especially comprehensive and a little sweetish. One lives by own cultivation in front of and behind the house. A little rice-field, surrounded by a bank of fruit-trees, a small pond next to it, filled with several freshwater fishes like Basa and Tra (the white Mekong-catfish), with shrimp and a couple of crayfishes. In front of the house paw the chicken and Vit, a kind of duck and also a Heo, a pig. They all provide the meat for the family.

The wise legendary father if the new Vietnam, president Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) also had an own garden and a fish pond in his Hanoian garden-house, where he preferred to live rather than in his palace. “Uncle” Ho, Bac Ho, how the Vietnamese affectionately call him until today, was, like all Vietnamese, a peasant by heart – he never forgot that.

”Take care of my fish-ponds” is what he said to his successors shortly before his death.

In the middle of Vietnam, people eat a lot of sticky rice. Sticky rice-cake going along with different sauces is famous for example in Hue. Or a special noodle-soup with crab-balls. Thereto the daily fresh catches of Nha Trang and Da Nang are served, a multifarious kitchen like the seasons of the ocean.

Fishes like Ca Thu (Spanish mackerel), the Ca Ngu (Tuna), Ca Hong (Snapper) and Ca Hanh (Brass), Tom Hum (green lobster) and bear-crabs, Muc (cuttlefish) and colorful Ca Mo (parrot-fish), Ca Mu (Goliath grouper) and Ca nuc heo (Mahi Mahi) – everything the ocean offers, is dressed freshly every day. Yet, sometimes the things are dried, like the cuttlefish, which is ripped to stripes and snacked with a spicy pepper-sauce.

The middle offers coffee and tea cultivation, fruit and wine from Dalat , from the mountains, Pepper from Daklak and a lot of vegetables, something different in every region.

People claim that in the north is the best kitchen. Around Hanoi food is hefty, there is a lot of pork- and beef, also sea fish, many sweet cakes made out of coconut and peanuts with sesame and the famous Banh, meat-cakes, which are wrapped with leaves and occasionally filled with beans.

It would take a thick book to describe Vietnam’s kitchen influences and habits. And still, there would another variation, one doesn’t know yet. The rule is variety and freshness – something new and special to enjoy every day.

Everyday in Vietnam is market day – open from four o’clock in the morning until 10 pm. Often, the markets are located under bridges, but every quarter has its own fresh-markets and moreover, there are the large market halls in the cities like the Ben Than Market in Ho Chi Minh City, which resembles the markets in Paris; just fresher, faster and more frantic.

The market around the corner of Ky Dong Street in Ho Chi Minh City, where the Vietnamese housewifes shops everyday, is located near a canal. There, fresh vegetables, chicken, fish and ducks are disposed for the kitchen. On top of that, there is a lot of clothing.

Every Vietnamese woman know their product. She scrutinizing takes a vegetable in the hand and she can tell if it grew on sandy ground or loam, under glass or free heaven. Every fish is being examined carefully, many of them are still alive when bought. One knows about the goods and they are traded quickly.

Every three hours, so they say here, the fish market changes its goods completely. Nothing is lying around for weeks, like in the supermarket, everything is for immediate use. Yet, some European visitor is shocked that people in 35 degrees Celsius don’t know cooling. It’s not needed, because the goods don’t lay for long.

The prices are dreamlike and drive water to the eyes of the gourmet. Two big crabs for one Dollar, a bunch of vegetables for the whole family for 20 Cent, a big Papaya for 50 Cent and so on – a crunchy baguette for 1.000 Dong (15.000 Dong are one Dollar). Here, you can enjoy the freshest thing without loosing much money.

Vietnamese markets are also cheap to the Vietnamese average income. The peasants deliver directly from field or garden and for many of them this is the only income source. Of course, one buys seasonal and the markets are colorful and new everyday.

Before we forget – Bio! It doesn’t even have to be mentioned. More bio isn’t possible. But it’s not pointed out, one just enjoys quietly.

Celebrations and Pleasure

New Year is the highest festivity in Vietnam. But not the New Years celebration like in Europe, this is also celebrated, but Tet, the family’s-New Year. This mostly is at the beginning of February or at the start of the new moon-year. Tet in many ways plays an important role in Vietnam, because it doesn’t only mark the new-year, it also depicts the balance of the family-situation. A once-a-year meeting of all generations, the alive and the ones from the afterlife – how else could it be in Vietnam – all of them gather in order to eat together.

Ong Tao, the three kitchen gods of Vietnam, who live in every house, fly to the jade-emperor for this occasion, in order to report to him if the family has been living happily and satisfied until the end of the year and if everything is in order or not. And they invite the ancestors to come down to earth for three days – then they have to return to heaven.

The feast however, is prepared several weeks in advance and sometimes carried-out some weeks afterwards. Special pastry plays decisive role, which are made in advance. Nobody should be hungry during Tet! They are called Banh Chung in the north and Banh Tet in the south. These are pastries of sticky rice, provided with a meat-filling and then wrapped with banana-leaves and finally tied tightly. Then they are eaten over Tet. But not only them.

A whole variety of food is served during Tet. The ancestors get a specially cooked chicken with plenty herbs, which is put on the table. The first (oldest) man in the family – this can be the father or the grandfather – prays with joss sticks to the ancestors and thanks them for their arrival and invites them for dinner.

When a certain period of devotion has passed, the alive family can gather around the table and they can
feast heavily – sometimes even the ancestor’s chicken becomes victim then.

Something similar repeats at the end of Tet, when the kitchen gods come back and the ancestors leave. One eats well together, once more.

All circumstances of life are conducted by good food. At the wedding there is Oc hap nhoi thit. These are “wedding-snails”. Very big snails which are collected from the flooded rice fields. Their meat is cut out, chopped and connected with meat filling and then put back into the snail-house and cooked slowly. In order to be able to pull it out again easily, a leave is pulled along under the meatball.

The ends of the leaves are used to pull out the wedding-snail, which is very easy to do. “Mamma Hai” in Ho Chi Minh City is an expert for these snails. She is from Hanoi, where these animals have always been collected by her in her childhood.

And besides her famous crab soup “Mamma Hai” serves these wedding-snails. Here they are called “Grandfather-Snails”. Very big and very delicious. They are dipped in a sauce of lemon balm, pepper, lime-juice and ginger: the seventh heaven of Vietnam for every gourmet.

One glimpse on the watch: it’s almost eleven o’clock. To the table quickly, no time – lunch is ready.

by Herby Neubacher

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