Family meal for a Vietnamese
“Ăn cơm chưa?” – “Have you got lunch/diner?” is always a good start of every greetings and daily conversation in the Vietnam. For us, people born and growing up in Vietnam, family meals play an inevitable role in every family in this country. It’s the best way to connect family members and strengthen the relationship between people living in the same house. Those who have studied or worked far away from home, especially being abroad, are the ones who cherish family meals the most. Ask them and they will say that they can never forget the feeling of sitting in the same table or on the floor having meals with their parents and siblings while sharing the stories, their happiness or worries.
The family meal is the precious time when children learn about Vietnamese etiquette and customs while the older ones care for the younger. It’s not a hard thing for the parents or grandparents to wait until every member of the family could join the meal, even when sometimes the young need to finish work late at their office. It’s not unusual that a kid need to learn using chopsticks for a long time even when using spoons is much easier. It’s a common politeness for the young to invite and let the more comfortable seating for the older before eating.
The childhood of most of Vietnamese is linked to early mornings going to the market with their mothers to get some fish, meat, vegetables or fruits for the family. The smell from the cooking food in the kitchen is something that every kid couldn’t resist after a morning of playing around with the neighbor or studying at school. Then the time of helping their moms to wash the bowls and chopsticks could be a bit tough duty for all the kids.
Nowadays in some cities of Vietnam, where people don’t have much time for family meals during weekdays, you can also see restaurants and café are packed with families on Saturdays and Sundays morning. This is a convenient and comfortable way for all the members of the family gather and relax while having breakfast together.
That’s why whether the family is rich or poor, family meals do not only provide material food to fulfill the stomach but also serve as spiritual food for Vietnamese families.
What are served in a family meal in the Southern Vietnam?
Throughout Vietnam, family meals may contribute similar roles and importance in a Viet family, but they vary in taste and ingredients due to the climate diversity and natural condition. While a meal in the North tends to be a bit sour with tamarind or dracontomelon but neither too spicy nor sweet, the meals in the Central Vietnam are often quite spicy and strong flavored. Meanwhile, food in the South is distinctively sweet, a bit spicy and fatty with various kinds of vegetables and seafood.
A typical meal in the South of Vietnam often 3 dishes: rice, meat and vegetable soup.
Rice: is always present in every Vietnamese meal. “Bữa cơm gia đình” – literally translated as family rice meal – is the most common phrase when talking about Vietnamese meal. White rice used to be cooked in clay pot and burned with firewood, which takes a lot of time and usually leave a layer of overcooked rice in the bottom – a favorite food for the kids. At present, with electric rice cooker, the work is much easier and can be done automatically.
Meat: pork or fish is commonly used as the main source of protein. People in the South prefer cooking pork in combination with sour and sweet sauce under braising technique – “thịt kho”. Sometimes, we can add pineapple, coconut milk or duck eggs for more flavors to the dish. The same cooking technique is often applied for popular kinds of fish like perch, gobies… without boning the fish.
Vegetable soup: an essential part of every meal in the South Vietnam is veggie, which is usually cooked under a kind of soup. And among the common kinds of soups, “canh chua” – sweet & sour soup – is the most popular and typical one that represents a lot about Southern cuisine. Ingredients can be easily found around the garden and from the river, like fish, tomato, pineapple, tamarind, lady fingers (okra), bean sprout… and hundreds of other interchangeable ingredients. The combination of all the ingredients would make the eaters feel a bit of sweet, sour and spicy flavor, all of which arouse their taste buds to the ultimate.
In addition to the main dishes, dipping sauce is an indispensable element of a Southern meal. Soya or fish sauce is the most popular sauce here. While soya sauce is more common to vegetarian meals, fish sauce or “nước mắm” is among the most popular thing when talking about Vietnamese food. In the past, many families had their own fish sauce made at home after getting silver fish from the market or catching from rivers or ocean. Without fish sauce, a lot of Vietnamese food could not be perfected. There are many variants of fish sauce when added with sugar, tamarind or even pineapple to suit the main dish. That’s how families in the South enrich their meals which are inherently diverse in terms of ingredients and cooking techniques.
After the meal, a dessert with tropical fruits is frequently served. Fruits can be bananas, papayas, jack fruits…, which grow all year round, or seasonal ones like longan, mangosteen, pomelos, mangos, dragon fruits… This is how a meal in the South Vietnam differs from those in other regions of Vietnam. Living in the most fertile land in the world, farmers in the Mekong delta can grow almost every kind of tropical fruits and in redundancy to supply to other regions and countries. This has formed the personality of generosity, hospitality and friendliness of the Southern people.
In short, family meals symbolize the culture, people and environmental conditions of a region. In the Southern Vietnam, especially in the Mekong Delta, where flooding seasons bring a great source of living to the people here and turn this area to one the special areas with extremely rich and diverse cuisine in the world. Even when the family size get smaller due to modern and busy life, family meal still maintain its importance in nurturing the souls and being a return place of every family member.