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The Evolution and Journey of the Vietnamese Cuisine (Review)

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Vu Hong Lien. 2016.
Rice and Baguette: A History of Food in Vietnam
London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
ISBN 9781780236575

Food, the indispensable element required for survival, has moved in ways concomitant with how human civilization has advanced, evolved and changed. In the midst of the many social and cultural indices marking one’s society, studies on culinary practices and consumption patterns have enabled a deeper insight into the socio-economic climate, political turmoils, and gauge the balance between tradition and modernity of civilizations and nations. This book, as a part of a series on food and nations, offers fascinating intertwined accounts of distinctive Vietnamese cuisine of the country embroiled with cultural musings and its people, of how the food practices mark the Vietnamese as a separate entity from the ‘others’ on the globe, as well as how the differing culinary styles amongst themselves break the homogeneity of one nation. Underlining the history, geography and politics of food across eight chapters, Vu Hong Lien presents a condensed historical trajectory of how the Vietnamese cuisine came into being and what stirs the soul of the Viet gastronomical delights in the present global scenario.

Crafting of a cuisine
The journey of Vietnamese palate from the pre-historic times to the present day, according to the author, have witnessed its evolution from hunting to domesticating the wild, from being gatherers and foragers to farmers and settled cultivators. The chapters are neatly dedicated to a detailed review of how with each foreign or colonial rule – starting from the Chinese millennium of 257 BCE – 983 CE to the Soviet Union decade of 1975-89 – came new ingredients, recipes and methods of cooking resulting in a vibrant Vietnamese food economy and diet. Over time, Vietnam, as a growing country, borrowed, adapted and preserved many foreign food items into its diet to the extent that in the present time, the once foreign ingredient or dish has been so ‘Vietnamized now that (its) origin has been forgotten’ (p. 181); for instance the Chinese rice noodle or the omnipresent fish sauce, the origin of which is unknown. The author’s attempt to chronologically order the eras and millenniums of the several rulers that Vietnam was subject to is quite helpful in unraveling the nuances of how food as means to survival, influenced by the culinary practices of the ‘other’, gradually evolves into food for enjoyment. Documenting the Chinese and the French cuisine as the most influential and enmeshed in the present Viet cookery, the book comments on the churning of hybrid dishes which have significantly informed the Viet custom and culture. Even the Viet national dish ‘beef pho/feu’, presumed to be have its origin from a strong French connection or influence, is only suggestive of the versatile absorptive years of the growing country of Vietnam.

As a country that has witnessed several changes of dynasties and political leaderships, one sees the intricate links between the political upheavals and food economy in the state. A concise discussion on administrative measures around the food rationing system during and after war years in Vietnam – for both the civilians and the military – historically locates the fluctuation of food price, food scarcity and the emergence of cash crops, which first benefitted the colonial interest and later placed the independent country on the global economy map. With the growing anti-colonial war, each freedom won from the colonial rule saw growing internal class conflict in the country between the ‘wicked landlords’ (p. 142) and the farmer, who demanded land reform programs and more cultivable land for its growing population.

Viewing of Southeast Asian cuisine as ‘weird and wonderful food’ (p. 210), have for long attracted the food connoisseur across the globe. The author while arguing that food habits for any society have to be located in its cultural context and the socio-economic conditions; demystifies the consumption of insects, worms, and frogs as crucial nutrition intake for the poor. Additionally, the readers would find the discussion on methods and replacements of ingredients in luxurious food to make them affordable and nutritious for the poor illustrated through the inset boxes of recipes and colorful pictures of the Vietnamese palate throughout the book.

Food, the society’s mirror
The idea of one’s living and dining practices reflective of the social prestige and class honor, is discussed though the many folk tales, songs and legends that is popular amongst the Vietnamese. Intriguing to read, these exemplify the customs of kitchen (p. 179), of how to prepare (p. 213) and eat a particular food (p. 202), etc., and are telling of values attached to such practices, rendering them sacred in nature. Providing intricate details of the elaborate menu of the royal court or any regular family with modest income, the utensils used for cooking, the way the food is served as well as the seating arrangements illuminate the strong customs entrenched in the Vietnamese tradition. A closer reading of these practices and the associated myths or songs uncover the strong undercurrents of class consciousness displayed and felt by the society members. Instances used by the author strongly comments on the gendered roles in the cooking and serving of the food. As the ‘lady of the house’ (p. 173), a woman’s efficiency is measured through her ability to cook, arrange the table or seating, while the men drink, unfurls the demarcated gendered roles in the house. Or, in the market place where men would always carry the heavy pots to sell street food ‘mobile phỏ’ (p. 128) and the woman indulge in cookery classes to be more creative in the kitchen, justifies the authors pronunciation of Vietnam as ‘male oriented society’ (p. 72). One would note strong sexist undertones manifested in both- the production and food consumption, for instance, viewing the art of preparing tea as a male activity to keep the tea untainted and not ruined by women at ‘certain time of the month’ (p. 81), and consumption of buffalo genitals and cobra’s blood to strengthen men’s sexual prowess or elephant feet to build his physical mettle. Perhaps, the author could have considered a chapter on the lines of gendered food, as an enriching addition to this ambitious project.

The north, the south and the rest
The sequence of chapters is useful in drawing a terse comparison between North and South Vietnam. Subjected to and influenced in varying degrees by their colonial rules, Lien argues, that the difference between the north and the south of the country is displayed in the preparatory methods and preferences for eating a particular food for both the regions. Succinctly capturing the Chinese influence on North and the South exhibiting French taste, this book deciphers the concoction of several food traditions and of Vietnamizing the same, particularly visible in the street food culture. The newly imported food did not only alter the dining palate of the Viet, but also the social fabric. Coffee that came with French, made coffee houses an important social space in the Viet market, where, Lien comments, ‘young men would sit and contemplate their existence, not always in the political sense but as part of the newly imported existentialism’ (p. 115).

The pivotal position of rice as the ‘wonder grain’ (p. 35) as the staple ingredient is present in any meal of the day, both in food and drinks, justifies the fitting title of the book. Perhaps, the book could have been called as the rice nation, but the reader only realizes by the end that the overarching French influence has left an indelible mark on the nation’s food. The modified French baguette as the Viet sandwich banh mi is now a global rage available in the most cosmopolitan cities of the world. An anthropological understanding of the exchange of food items across the globe and the production of global brands contributes to the growing popularity of Vietnamese cuisine across the world. The last few chapters locate Vietnamese food in the diaspora, touching upon the nostalgia which the diasporic Viet create as ‘taste of home’ (p. 228). Interestingly, Lien refers to the diasporic attempts of making available and cooking traditional Vietnamese dishes as an effort to recreate the feeling of home ‘through taste’(p. 227).

Signifying the importance of a market place as an imperative study site, Lien paints a vivid picture of what was seen in a market place, heard and smelt, both in Vietnam and later in the diasporic circle. The author’s lucid presentation of facts complemented by her humorous style of writing transports the reader amidst a busy Vietnamese market place, adding an ethnographic character to the text. A body of work such as this would appeal equally to a food enthusiast, a layman reader as much as to a scholar interested in the realm of sociology of food.

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