Agricultural products and food culture in Viet Nam

Thái Công Tụng

This paper offers a contextual framework of the Vietnamese food culture. It goes without saying that without agriculture, there is no food. Food plays an important part in everyday life as in social occasions. Food products are influenced by the natural environment: the tropical climate helps Viet Nam to produce food all year round, from rice to fruit, from vegetable to various condiments which mean that a great variety of fresh food is available all year round . River systems combined with arroyos, ponds, canals and a long coastline are all natural ecosystems endowed with a great variety of fisheries.Thus, it is no wonder that cuisine is also diversified. Outside the country, Vietnamese cuisine is very popular across the globe and is now present in all 5 continents, from North Europe to Africa, from California to Europe, from Japan to Australia .We live in an age of the cult of hedonism and food is an important part of this pleasure.

Cuisine is a central aspect of the culture: what more accessible way is there to learn about a culture than how its people satisfy and glorify a basic human need? As a matter-of-fact, we can gain a deep understanding of the country, its natural environment and its inhabitants by observing their food and drink. Following is a general description of ingredients, and food sources to anyone exploring Vietnamese cuisine in the kitchen.

1. Rice. Like other Asian cultures, rice is a mainstay in Vietnamese cooking. Why? just because rice plant can be planted in various ecosystems: upland rainfed, upland irrigated, lowland rainfed, lowland irrigated. It is cultivated from the plains to mountains of high elevations. Many rice varieties are available in Viet Nam: early varieties, aromatic varieties as the name indicates Tám thơm, salinity resistant, acidity resistant varieties etc. Rice is harvested practically in every month of the year since Viet Nam has diverse climatic and soil conditions from North to South .

The expression for eating food in Vietnamese, ” ăn cơm“, literally means, “to eat rice”. We Vietnamese use the phrase ” ăn cơm chưa ‘, in the common greeting to mean literally “Have you eaten rice?”, and by extension, “How are you doing?”.. Rice is in every meal .

From rice, rice flour is made and processed into various forms: rice paper for wrapping shrimp and herbs to have summer roll or cha gio, also known as nem rán, rice vermicelli which are thin noodles, sometimes also known as rice noodles. They are often eaten as part of a soup dish like bún riêu, which are rice vermicelli in soup with crab meat or bún bò which are soup with beef slices, stir fry like in bún thịt nướng which are grilled pork and vermicelli noodles over a bed of greens, herbs and bean sprouts. Another popular Vietnamese dish is the flavorful phở, a broth made with rice noodles and brimming with savory greens, including basil and bean sprouts. Phở bò is made with beef broth, while Phở gà is made with chicken broth.

Sweet rice is used in making bánh chưng. They are hard-pressed sticky rice cakes with pork meat and green beans wrapped with banana leaves among the offerings placed on the altar to their ancestors and are traditional meals during celebrations of Vietnamese New Year. According to the legend, under the reign of the Hung Kings, Prince Lang Lieu created sticky rice cakes and presented them to his father. Bánh chưng won high acclaims from the King who awarded the prince his throne!.

One particular dish is called xôi gấc in which the seeds of the fruit Momordica are cooked in sticky rice, imparting their red colour and flavor . Since the fruit is less abundant than other foods in the nature, xôi gấc is typically served only at festive occasions in Viet Nam such as Tet and weddings.



A plate of xôi gấc


Fruit of gấc

2. Vegetables

Vietnamese meals have plenty of fresh vegetables. Vegetables are mostly being short-duration crops and can be produced in succession on the same plot; there are more than 50 important vegetables which can be dealt under different groups as follows.

Solanaceous fruits which include cà chua or tomato (Lycopersicon annum), cà or brinjal (Solanum melongena) and ớt or chilli (Capsicum annum), all belonging to the Solanaceae family

Cole crops which include cabbage (Brassica oleracea), cauliflower (Brassica oleracea), Chinese cabbage (Brassica chinensis) are hardy and thrive best in cool weather and belong to the family Cruciferae.

Root crops such as radish (Raphanus sativus), turnip (Brassica rapa), carrot (Daucus carota) are quite common..

Peas and beans such as Pisum sativum, French bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), string bean

Cucurbits crops include cucumber (Cucumis sativus), muskmelon (Cucumis melo), water-melon (Citrullus vulgaris), bottle-gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), sponge-gourd (Luffa cylindrica), bittergourd (Momordica charantia), ash-gourd (Benincasa hispida), pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata), to cite a few .

Okra or đậu bắp (Abelmoschus esculentus) belongs to the family Malvaceae and is a warm-season crop. Bamboo shoots are also popular in Vietnamese cooking

Leafy vegetables,. Vegetables are also grown naturally such as rau muong, Ipomea aquatica, in marshes or ponds . This vegetable can be eaten boiled, fried, stirred . Ipomea aquatica rau muống and common eggplant ( ) are meals very popular especially in Northern Viet Nam. The vegetable is a common ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine ; the leaves are usually stir fried with minced garlic : rau muống tỏi

Also, floating in ponds: rau rút (Neptunia oleracea, Mimosaceae). In moist soils, one can remark the presence of rau nghể (Polygonum hydropiper, Polygonaceae), rau sam (Portulaca oleracea, Portulacaceae), rau má (Centella asiatica, Umbelliferae), rau dền (Amaranthus sp )

Vegetables are a fundamental part of Vietnamese cuisine and are combined to highlight their textures, flavors and colors. They are either used as soups (canh) or cut into pieces and stir-fried with meat and served with rice or noodles.

Typical vegetables in a market

3. Spices  Varied uses of spices and herbs are an integral part of food preparation in Vietnamese cuisine.Vietnamese dishes are meals typically served with lots of greens, herbs, vegetables and various other accompaniments such as dipping sauces, hot and spicy pastes, and flavor enhancements such as lemon grass (sả), mint (rau thơm), basil (rau húng quế), turmeric (nghệ ), garlic (tỏi ), clove (đinh hương), shallots (hẹ), ginger (gừng), cinnamon (quế), star anise (hồi), white and black pepper (tiêu ), leaves of culantro (ngò gai ),chillies (ớt), coriander (ngò). One particular spice, rau thì là (leaves of dill plant, Anethum graveolens as Latin name) is a must in fish meals.

A famous spice mix is ngũ vị hương which is usually a powder of five dried spices, commonly including cardamon, cinnamon and clove and is used to enhance the flavor of a dish and create unique flavors and aromas .Those spices from mainland Asia were introduced early since ancient times, thus it has become the integral part of Vietnamese cuisine. It is noteworthy that the ingredient found in almost all Vietnamese dishes and every region of the country is nuoc mam, a fish sauce made from salt-cured anchovies that are placed in the barrel raw and left to marinate over time. It imparts a unique character to Vietnamese food. This sauce is as common as salt and pepper is to the western table. No dish is complete without at least a little of this condiment.

4. Fruits

Vietnamese markets abound with many types of tropical fruit. These are an important part of the Vietnamese diet, either eaten freshly, made into desserts, fried like chuối chiên (fried banana), or processed into crispy chips as snacks like jackfruit or banana chips. Fruit forms a large part of the Vietnamese diet and are customarily served after a meal. The dominant are chuÓi or banana (Musa paradisiaca), xoài or mango (Mangifera indica), nhãn or longan (Euphoria longana), cam qúit or citrus fruits (grapefruit, lemon, orange), °i or guava (Psidium guava), Çu Çû or papaya (Carica papaya), thÖm or pineapple (Ananas comosus), xapôchê or sapota (Achras zapota)

In the Mekong delta, sÀu riêng or durian (Durio zibethinus), chôm chôm or rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum), mæng cøt or mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana), mäng cÀu or custard-apple (Annona squamosa) are quite common .



Fruits of Sau Rieng

In the home gardens of Central Viet Nam, dominant fruits are mít or jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus). Some areas in the Red River delta are famous with väi or litchi (Litchi sinensis). In the high mountains of North Viet Nam, one can find mÖ or apricot (Prunus armeniaca), táo or apple (Pyrus malus), mÆn or plum (Prunus domestica), lê or pear (Pyrus communis), hÒng or persimmon (Diospiros kaki) .

5. Fish products

Hundreds of different fish, shellfish and other seafood from the oceans, lakes and rivers are used in the Vietnamese cuisine. They are prepared and eaten in many different ways, for example, raw, dried, boiled, grilled, deep fried or steamed

Fish in great varieties and abundance are present in inland waters such as rivers, natural lakes and swamps, man- made lakes, irrigation and drainage systems, ponds, estuarine zones. Fish constitute a necessary diet in the daily food of Vietnamese.

Among the crustaceans in fresh-water areas, different species of prawns such as tôm càng, tôm lửa, tôm bạc, tôm đất abound with the scientific name Penaeus.

Molluscs are commonly found in rivers and ponds. Different species of molluscs exist such as ốc hương, ốc lèn, ốc gạo with scientific names as Modiola, Mytitus, Nerita..

Frogs are abundant and some are widely appreciated for eating. Tortoises (Trionix cartilagineus) exist also in the Mekong delta.

Many mangrove swamps in the Central coastal lowlands with brackish water such as near Ba Ngòi and Ninh Hoà areas are locations where farmers raise fish such as cá dìa (Siganus), cá đối ( Mugil cephalus), cá hanh (Acanthopagrus herda ), cá măng (Chanos chanos). Brackish water aquaculture – mainly shrimp- is mostly concentrated in Ca Mau area.

.Important marine fisheries are based on shrimps, lobsters, crabs, squid, mackerel, pomfret, sardines, sharks, bream, bass and marine turtles. The coastal waters of Viet Nam abound with fish in great diversity. They are known to the Vietnamese as cá cơm (Stolepborus), cá thu (Cybium), cá bạc má (Rastrelliger), cá thiều (Arius), cá gộc (Polynemus), cá nọc(Decapterus), cá trich (Herengula), The Stolephorus fishes are small, slender and semi-translucent and are used in making high-grade fish sauce.

Everywhere feasible in the depressions, backswamps, estuaries, lakes.. aquaculture is practised to raise fish or shrimps. In the Mekong delta, ponds are raised with cá tra (Pangasius Pangasius), cá vồ (Pangasius Larnandi ) while in the small ditches in the fruit orchards, there are cá sặc (Trichogaster) or sometimes with cá trê (Claria fuscus), cá lóc (Ophiocephalus). Elsewhere, cá chép (Cyprinus carpio), cá phi (Tilapia mossambica), cá mè (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) are also raised in hatchery stations.

Fish and shrimps are partly for fresh consumption, partly for processing in various ways. The common methods for fish and shrimp processing are drying, smoking, cooking, frozing. Also fish sauce (nước mắm) is famous from Phú Quốc island. Main fishes used for making nước mắm are cá cơm (Stolephorus) and cá bạc má (Rastrelliger ). Small shrimp paste (ruôc) is made from very small shrimps such as Acetes indicus, Neomysis, Lucifer hanseni..

6. Meat products

Meat staples include chicken, pork, beef, ducks . Beef and chicken are generally stewed, grilled or stir fried. Condiments are always mixed for stewing, frying etc. Due to the lack of land, pigs and chicken raising are more popular activities for many farmers. One particular pork meat product is giò lụa or pork sausage which is pork meat wrapped in fresh banana leaves and boiled

One should mention that in Viet Nam, bouddhist monks and bouddhist followers do not eat meat in any kind. They choose to do so just for health or by beliefs. Reasons cited are killing or eating animals are a violation of the Five precepts (Ngủ giới) and bad for their own karma (nghiệp) and because of pure compassion for other animals .

7. As snacks or dessert, Vietnamese cuisine offers, besides a variety of fruit, also sweet soup, called chè; in this category, a whole array of agricultural products is available from beans ( black bean or chè đậu đen, green beans or chè đậu xanh ) to lotus seeds, taro root, tapioca ..

8. Beverages  From time immemorial, Vietnamese drink tea. Tea is taken during any time of the day and is the drink traditionally offered to people visiting families, friends, visitors; it is taken without milk or sugar. Vietnamese coffee is mostly grown in the Central Highlands and the minority of Vietnamese people who drink coffee usually mix it with condensed milk. Beer as well as soft drinks such as Cokes and Seven-ups, bottled water, are common these days. The street vendors sell coconut juice, sugarcane juice or chopped fruits (orange, banana ..) blended with crushed ice. Finally, rice wine which can be made easily at home using local or Chinese fermentation powder is produced and used widely in the countryside. It is also used as a base for the addition of plants, barks or animals (e.g. snake)

9. Serving  A vietnamese family meal will normally consist of rice with several dishes which form a harmonious contrast of ingredients and ways of preparation. The dishes are all served at the same time, shared and enjoyed together . The harmony incorporates the dual principles of yin and yang of Taoism: balance between vegetables and meat, between colours, between tastes ( salty, sweet, sour, and spicy ) etc .Vietnamese food was traditionally eaten with chopsticks, not with forks and spoons like in Occidental culture

The meal is wrapped up with fruits such as bananas and oranges, and fully completed with a cup of strong tea.

10. Regional cuisines with special dishes

As in any country, Vietnam’s cuisine reflects its geography and history. Vietnamese cuisine is somewhat different, depending on the geography of the country from North to South over 3000 km long .

The colder Northern region is known for its beefy stews, such as phở . It is a mixture of beef broth with rice noodles. The broth is generally made by stewing/simmering beef bones, flank steak, charred onions and spices in a large pot for a long time. Cuisine here reflects more Chinese influence than Central or South . Soy sauce (nước tương) is more common in dishes while nuoc mam is more popular in Central or South. Other daily food in the countryside, such as rau muống (the closest American vegetable, yet distinctly different from rau muống, is spinach), tofu, and small pickled eggplants called cà pháo (“firecracker eggplant”) are quite popular.

A typical northern dish is bánh cuốn which is a roll made from a thin sheet of rice flour filled with ground pork, some minced mushroom and eaten with chả lụa, a Vietnamese pork sausage and bean sprouts. A drop of ca cuong which is the essence of a water bug called Lethocerus indicus, having a very penetrating taste and mixed with a dipping sauce makes this dish of bánh cuốn a delicacy.

The cuisine in the Mekong delta down South has been influenced by Chinese immigrants and Cambodia. Cuisine reflects the greater diversity of herbs such as canh chua which is a fish sour soup made with fish from the Mekong River and Sesbania flowers (so đũa) grown along the numerous arroyos. Peasants eat whatever they find in rice fields, from rats to field snakes . Many Southern dishes are generously spiced with chillies, coconut milk and a variety of herbs and spices. Specific mention about 2 special meals: one is hủ tiếu Mỹ Tho and the other is lẩu mắm . In the former, noodles are from rice flour mixed with tapioca flour to make them more resistant .The broth of this soup comes from meat, dried squids and special condiments. In the latter, the broth comes from marinated fish to which vegetables and meat is added, Lẩu designates the broth and mắm the salted fish .Guests choose and boil their meat or fresh vegetables in the broth

The central region especially in Hue area is somewhat different: in the Hue cuisine, besides traditional dishes for ordinary people, royal cuisine is noteworthy since Hue was the former capital of the Nguyen kings. The royal tradition in the central region goes back beyond the more recent Vietnamese monarchy to the ancient kingdom of Champa. The royal taste reveals itself in the preference for many dishes with delicate portions, presented with meticulous art and served in multiple courses. The more lavish the spread, the wealthier the household.

Also, another feature of Huế cuisine is that it is often very spicy. A particular dish here is Bun bo Hue which is rice vermicelli with beef slices: the very spicy broth with the lemongrass and the shrimp paste. Spices such as the mint, Vietnamese coriander and banana blossoms are to tone down and balance the earthiness of the fermented shrimp paste.

11. Concluding remarks

There is no doubt that there is a relation between food and health . Vietnamese cuisine is full of vegetables so it is rich in dietary fiber . It is healthy with many spices like ginger, turmeric, garlic..known as having antibacterial compounds and cholesterol-lowering properties. Also many Vietnamese dishes are very low-calorie, using very little oil, as compared to Chinese cooking. In another words, it is a lean cuisine. No wonder then Vietnamese cuisine is now well-appreciated in the contemporary world where cardiovascular diseases are prevalent.

Thái Công Tụng