Home is Where the Rice is

Vietnamese food culture reflects life, family and Asian philosophy.

It often times seemed to my siblings and me that my family is the only one in my hometown not to own an Asian diner or restaurant. My parents have been living in Germany for more than 30 years now, but even though my mother is a culinary master and could easily appease the Germans’ hunger for the Asian cuisine, it has never occurred to them to open up a restaurant.

However, I have learned early on that my family takes food and the whole food culture itself very seriously. The Vietnamese usually don’t say that they celebrate a birthday but it’s a Vietnamese idiom to say that they “eat a birthday”. Although it may seem incomprehensible to others, there is some if not a lot of truth in that.

Though food certainly isn’t the center of our attention, more than enough is always served. I often perceived our family gatherings for special occasions degenerate into self-indulgent eating. Any festivity celebrated can be connected to a dish or pastry that is specifically prepared for it. Various regions in Vietnam have their own local specialty which they are known for. Food is essential in our culture especially when it comes to celebrations, and carries with it much more meaning than first seems.  

Under the watchful eyes of my grandfather, we set up an altar in our living room for our ancestors when I was little. There, beautiful bowls filled with fruits and rice symbolized the offering for our ancestors. It represents a gift as well as a meal for our descendants as we think of them whose spirits still surround and protect us. We remember the people who nurtured us and without whom our life as we live it now would not exist. The worship of ancestors is linked with the Confucian ideal of filial piety but to have food as an offering or give it as a present has become custom and tradition because the Vietnamese attribute great value to it. While appearance is suggestive of a person’s personality and social standard in much of the Western world, the Vietnamese are likely to conclude from how food is presented and how it is cooked to the character of people and family.

Food constitutes social relations and matters for our cultural understanding because it establishes relationships and functions as a means of communication. Inviting people over to dinner on more or less on every occasion is common. Close friends, relatives or complete strangers – food is the way to go. It is a gesture of courtesy, a way to get to know people and show our gratitude. One of the first question asked by the Vietnamese is not “How are you?” but “Have you already eaten?”, only to invite them for a meal if they haven’t. Others consider it polite to invite people out for dinner, but the Vietnamese tend to invite people to their home. Why? Because preparing a Vietnamese meal is truly an art which is not only dependent on the right ingredients but also various concepts completely unknown to many.

Not that it would be difficult enough to simply cook a good meal but the composition of it matters even more so. Rice, the most stereotypical crop associated with Asia, indeed surrounds the Vietnamese cuisine and culture everywhere we go. We fry it, we cook it; we have rice cakes, sticky rice dishes and rice noodles. While rice in its different forms serves as the most basic component of a dish, the importance lies in what accompanies it.

Have you ever looked at an Asian dish and were wondering about the seemingly perfect set of colors and forms it is composed of? The answer lies in yin and yang;  the concept that the Vietnamese have adapted from the Chinese and transferred to their cooking. Specific foods are thought be of a yin- nature, meaning that they signify the “cold” in the dish, while certain foods of a yang- nature are thought have a “warm” character. In every meal, there has to be a certain sense of balance; a “warm” food always needs to be accompanied by a “cold” food. Besides yin and yang, there’s a rule of trinity in food that one has to follow religiously. A decent Vietnamese meal is composed of a soup, something like a vegetable stir-fry and a good quality, proper piece of meat or fish; three is a whole, stable number that symbolizes completion and perfection. Even the simplest meal follows at least a variation of this set. Harmony is the meat and potatoes to the Asian secret art of cooking.

Yet in the end, food can have as many functions and meanings as it would like to. Food and the whole culture that comes with it are of great significance simply because it connects us with our home and family. It reminds me of my roots and though having condemned the Vietnamese cuisine when I was living at home, I now yearn for the hot bowl of rice that awaits me there every time I come back.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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