Rice at the Centre of the Table
In Vietnam, a common greeting is ‘ăn cơm chưa’, meaning ‘have you eaten?’, although the literal translation is ‘have you eaten rice’. Bao La, a Vietnamese-Australian chef who has brought Saigonese cuisine to kitchens outside of Vietnam, shared with me that the word for com (boiled rice) has become synonymous with the meaning of meal. Rice forms an important subtext and undertone in the Vietnamese language that is revealed in the most casual exchanges, and topics of a more serious nature. In a meal, it is an important determinant: of the cook’s ability, as good rice means a good chef – ‘the food was so good, so-and-so ate an extra bowl of rice’ is a great complement to the cook; and of your eating capacity. Eating several bowls of rice in one meal is an impressive feat, sometimes met with looks of awe. The consumption of rice, though, is not without tribute nor attribution. Children are taught by their parents that ‘a grain of golden rice has nine drops of sweat’, in homage to the farmers, meaning you have to cherish the rice produced. A country that has endured many food shortages in war and occupation, rice bowls in Saigon are often wiped clean.
I have always eaten rice. With curry, vegetables or meat, with dal, with chapati. Rice has been my staple for as long as I can remember, the first stage in cooking a meal, and the first thing I was ever taught to make. I knew how to fill the pot with cold water, rinse until it was cloudy, carefully tip the water out, placing my hand in the sink to scoop up any fallen grains, and repeat.
Once it was boiled, creating a white, fluffy mound in the pan, each grain separate from its neighbour, I was always fascinated by how much it changed on my plate. Dal or curry was heaped on top, dispersing the grains, sitting and bathing in flavour. The white turned yellow from toor dal or chnna dal, or orange from turmeric, or red from tomato. It was a base, it could soak up liquid; to then be scooped up with four fingers or chapati, using a thumb to push it into your mouth.
Growing up in the 2000s, in an Indian family in the leafy, middle class and white suburbs of Southwest London, rice was the substance that glued us together as a family, whereas at school it made me stand out from the crowd. In opposition to me, the first thing my friends learned to cook was toast. Their dinner tables were filled with loaves of bread, mine with pilau and biryani and haldi rice.
Cooking for others, as an adult, I was always met with questions, the same questions I still get asked today: what is the right ratio of water to rice? Should I stir the rice while it's cooking or wait until after to fluff it with a fork? Is it okay to use a metal fork or should I only use a wooden utensil? These questions were weird – are still weird – rice is rice. It’s a given, it doesn't require effort or thought or a recipe. Rice was an extension of self.
But relocating to Vietnam with my parents just under a year ago, to live within a bifold rice culture – in an rice-eating Indian household, and in a rice-growing Vietnamese society – has prompted deeper thinking about its importance. During meals in Saigon, rice occupies a different place on the table, literally, and metaphorically.
A relatively recently industrialised economy, Vietnam has, for thousands of years, gained the majority of its income from agricultural means. Vast swathes of the population worked tirelessly as farmers on paddy fields – a role that they may have now abandoned in cities, but that is still recognisable in their body clocks, with early mornings and early nights. The city wakes at 4 or 5am, with street sellers in full swing before the scorching heat of the day, with the buzz fading and mostly quiet by 9pm. Trying to navigate such a radical time-based culture shock, rice has become my meeting point; a mindset I have developed while living amongst people who have a longstanding relationship with rice. It has moulded Vietnamese society, and is entrenched in their language. Looking at modern dishes, we see that this relationship is ever-evolving, that tradition adapts, as a testament to the Vietnamese’s culinary innovation and creativity. Within a colonised space we see agency, reclamation and ownership through this creativity. Rice is central to the table because it is central to life in Vietnam.
“For one thing, the Vietnamese wholeheartedly adopted the irrigated rice agriculture of their conquerors with the result that no truly ethnic Vietnamese wants to settle in any part of the country that is not flat enough for “wet rice” culture.”
– The Straits Times, 1 June 1965, Page 9.
From the rugged mountains of Mù Cang Chải to the vast lowlands of the Mekong Delta, rice is a primary crop grown all over the country. The modern history of Vietnam is a tale of clashes and conquest; its colonisation by the French from 1859 to 1954, and then dominated by American powers following this, up until 1973, has left its mark on the society, as well as the cuisine. Throughout this their commitment to a rice-based eating culture has remained strong.
What is a meal without rice? To many Vietnamese people, it is not a meal. When French soldiers took over the south in 1859, controlling local governance, resistance groups sprung up across rural areas and highland jungles. The terrain of Vietnam is varied and vast, and though this presented an obvious challenge to the French, they figured out that in order to detect the location of rebels they need only find the telltale wisps of cooking-smoke rising in the air: the smoke from cooking rice. Why? Guerilla soldiers refused to eat their rice cold. The French could then launch attacks from the air or alert ground forces. Units were forced to cook by night, hoping the steam would be less obvious, and in 1951, a new and elaborate system of trenches, dugouts and tunnels was finally developed to allow the smoke to be released further away. The Vietnamese could cook their rice, at any time of day, without compromising their cover.
Diets and tastes were not stagnant but instead experienced some change with French occupation – pastries and breads experienced a surge in popularity, with new adaptations like bánh sừng bò (cattle-horn cake) and bánh sữa (milk cake), that remain today. Bánh mì, too, was a modern creation of French and Viet origins: perhaps the most popular Vietnamese food, recognised by many worldwide. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, office workers in the South of the country experienced a shortened lunch break that no longer allowed for trips home, and thus sought options closer to the office. Bánh mìs were considered insufficient as a full meal, as it did not contain rice, so street vendors began serving hot rice with vegetables, meat and fish – ‘plate rice’. Shops serving the same fare exist all across Vietnam, under the name cơm vӑn phòng (office rice). In the countryside, too, farmers who could not journey all the way home for hot rice at lunch creatively packed rice tightly, rolling it and slicing it, with these thick slices eaten with mắm or dried fish.
Landing at Tan Son Nhat airport last year, I remember my first meal in Vietnam. Trying not to fall off a tiny red stool on the side of the road, I shovelled cơm tấm down my throat: hot, smoky, spicy, absolutely great. Broken rice, or Cơm Tấm Sài Gòn, hailing from the south and areas around Saigon, is a popular dish with humble origins. Dishes in Vietnam tend to be named after their birthplace: Bún Bò Huế, Bún Chả Hà Nội, or Lẩu Cá đuối Vũng Tàu, imbuing a sense of history and place into the foods. Rice harvests produce tấm, which is broken and fractured rice grains. Considered an inferior product, it was often fed to cattle, and consumed only by those who could not afford the long grains, such as the very lowest classes or rice farmers. Alongside the broken rice, farmers ate grilled pork rib, shredded pork rice, a steamed egg with meatloaf and/or omelette. Elements were cheap, often by-products, and the dish gained popularity quickly across the Southern provinces. Over time the French caught wind of it, and requested that the pork resemble a Western-style steak. The dish was adapted to suit foreign tastes, replacing the meat with a pork chop, served on plates with spoons, instead of traditional bowls and chopsticks.
A dish that arose during French colonialism, you can look out for plumes of smoke rising, and wafts of fatty, charcoaled pork, to find cơm tấm on the grill around the corner. It has become the city’s most popular dish: cheap to make, easy to eat, and famous amongst tourists and locals alike. The pork chop is sweet, as is Southern Vietnamese food more generally, and smoky from the hot grill, with the richness cut through by pickles, usually cucumber, carrot and daikon. The fried egg spills out over this and the mound of broken rice, and the nước chấm – the flavour of Vietnam, a sharp with lime and fish sauce – brings it all together. Cơm tấm is symbolic of Vietnamese history: created on the paddy fields, eaten out of necessity, and though modified for foreign tastes, it has kept its integral meaning. It’s a dish so steeped in history and meaning that it tastes better every time.
Kay Plunkett Hogge, a British chef currently based in Thailand, explores rice’s role in Southeast Asian cuisine more widely. ‘It is the most important thing on the table. Every dish goes with it, not the other way around’. Until recently, there were only three burners in Vietnamese kitchens: one reserved exclusively for rice, the other two for soup and salty dishes. Rice is served either as a side (in the case of office rice), on its own, or as the main dish.
All bún in Vietnam are products of rice – the rice is dried and pounded, then turned into small white threads. Bun moc, bun bo hue and bun cha all feature these light rice vermicelli noodles. Rice flour is spread thinly over a cloth and steamed, then rolled with wood ear mushrooms and minced pork, and topped with herbs and nuoc mam, to make bánh cuốn. Rice papers have also gained significant popularity, filled with fresh herbs, vegetables and tofu or meat, to make gỏi cuốn (salad rolls). The base of bánh tráng, nicknamed Vietnamese pizza, is also a rice paper.
Every street in Saigon is littered with carts or stalls, selling food for less than a few pounds. Motorbikes pull up for cà phê sữa đá and a bánh mì before work, kids amble by to pick up snacks after school and commuters collect dinner in and amongst the evening rush. Xôi is a common snack. Banana leaves are pulled back to uncover a sticky ball of sweet or salty rice, made sweet with mung, soy, black or red beans, peanuts or sweetcorn, particularly in the sugar-rich cuisine of the South, but also mixed with Chinese sausage, mushrooms, spring onions with dried shrimps. Sticky rice in bamboo – com lam – is served with salted roasted sesame, chicken skewers or grilled pork. It would be impossible to detach the history of modern Vietnamese food from a history of rice.
In Vietnam, rice is served in individual bowls, and is central on your table. This is such a contrast to my relationship with rice as an ingredient beside others, swamped in other dishes like dal. The tools for eating are also important; using chopsticks to eat rice for the first time in Vietnam I realised the need for it to be kept dry, being impossible to pick up if it was drenched in liquid, so it sits separately and can be eaten alone. Living in Saigon has been the first time I have ever tasted rice.
But yet, the importance of rice is still a familiar one to me, the importance of having a relationship with this grain is crucial to my understanding of being Indian and of diaspora. The act of eating rice is a principle that is upheld even when Asians plant roots elsewhere. In Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Nazneen asks her husband if she can bring her sister to England, who is struggling in Dhaka after failed marriages and longs for hope. He tells her, ‘Bring her. Bring them all. Make a little village here. Get a box and sow rice. Make a paddy on the window sill. Everyone will feel at home’. Rice bonds, it brings us back to our home, to the paddy fields of our ancestors, and tables of our families. It is sharing and togetherness.
If I learnt one thing about living in Saigon, it is that rice is life. Where once I sat at home in Southwest London, a stroppy teenager refusing to finish my rice, in Vietnam now my bowl is empty: a homage to their long, tumultuous history, of struggles and learnings on paddy fields, and a culture founded on rice.
NOTE: In this article, I have used the name Saigon, not Ho Chi Minh City. There are a few reasons for this. I have always heard locals refer to Saigon; Saigon also refers to the inner districts of the city, which is where I've been living, with HCMC referring to a far larger area. Sài Gòn is a Vietnamese word (meaning cotton plant, which is what was planted here) that was then westernised by the French to become Saigon. Either Sài Gòn or Saigon feels the most appropriate to use, and as I have written in English rather than Vietnam, I’ve used Saigon.
Yasmin Kira is a food researcher and writer. Over the past year she has spent time in kitchens in Vietnam and South Korea, and on farms in Australia, equipping her with a deep, contextually-grounded knowledge of food and produce. You have find her @yasminkiraeats_