For thousands of years, rice has been the most important crop in Vietnam. It is the country’s primary staple food and thus it plays a fundamental role in Vietnamese culture. These days, rice remains a vital ingredient of Vietnamese cuisine despite all the changes in cooking methods and eating patterns over the past decades.
Rice is an indispensable part of Vietnamese culture. Since ancient times, it has been the mean of sustenance, as well as the driving force of social and economic development. The Vietnamese farmers have steadily gained experience in wet rice cultivation and irrigation throughout their history. They have also learned and adapted new techniques to increase crops. Today, this staple food is one of Vietnam’s main sources of income. It is grown all over the country, from the rugged mountains of Mu Cang Chai to the vast lowland of the Mekong Delta.
As the life of Vietnamese people is centered around the paddy fields, many cultural aspects that relate to rice are formed. For example, the use of grains in worshipping at temples and pagodas. Or in art, patterns on Dong Son drums also depict various stages of rice processing. Nevertheless, the culinary world is the area where this staple food plays the most crucial role.
Rice in Vietnamese cuisine
It is not exaggerated to say that Vietnamese cuisine is built on the basis of gạo (rice). It turns up in the meal of virtually every Vietnamese, from breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, to desserts. In fact, the word for cơm (boiled rice) become synonymous with the general meaning of “meal”.
Over time, the country’s primary staple food eventually evolves as cooking tools and eating patterns became more sophisticated. Aside from the classic white rice, there are now sticky rice, green rice, brown rice, etc. Moreover, this ingredient doesn’t necessarily appear in its original form. It also comes as wine, vinegar, and flour. Rice flour is the key component to make phở (rice noodles), rice papers, and even bánh mì (Vietnamese baguettes). The following are some common rice dishes that can be found across the country, albeit only those that maintain the grains.
A bowl of plain, cooked rice is served in most Vietnamese diets. It takes the central part of the daily meal and is typically accompanied by three to four dishes. That includes a protein-rich main dish, vegetable side dish, a clear broth, and dessert. Dipping sauce and small relishes are often served to enhance the flavor of the main dish. Except for an individual bowl of rice for each family member, all other dishes are communal and are to be shared in the middle of the table. Some families also serve dipping sauce separately due to hygienic reasons.
Saigon-style Broken Rice
One of Vietnam’s most popular rice dishes, if not the most popular, is cơm tấm – a signature street food of Saigon. As the name implies, this dish is made of tấm (broken rice grains), topped with charcoal-grilled pork rib, shredded pork rind, steamed egg with meatloaf, and/or omelet. It is then slathered with chili fish sauce and a drizzle of green onion oil before garnishing with pickled carrot and daikon. In the past, cơm tấm was often served as breakfast. But these days people enjoy it regardless of meals.
Despite its sumptuous appearance, cơm tấm has a very humble origin. Until the 20th century, only the poor farmers would eat this dish because tấm was considered inferior at the time. It had no commercial value thus the farmers cooked them to fill their stomachs. However, since Vietnam’s urbanization in the first half of the 20th-century, this kind of rice started gaining popularity across the southern provinces, including Saigon. As the city was bustling with people from around the world, Saigonese chefs had to reinvent cơm tấm so that it is more suitable for foreign customers. As a result, grilled pork, steamed egg with meatloaf, and other ingredients were added to the originally working-class food. The dish also started being served on plates with spoons and forks instead of traditional bowls and chopsticks.
Hoi An Chicken Rice
Simpler than cơm tấm, but equally delicious is Hoi An Chicken Rice. A specialty of the ancient port town, this dish includes rice, shredded boiled chicken, and/or chicken giblet. Here, the prominent feature is the distinctively fragrant rice which is cooked in chicken stock and pandan leaves. A touch of fresh turmeric is usually added to give it a rich gold color. The whole plate is then topped with thinly sliced onion and aromatic herbs such as mint, coriander, and basil. Very often, a small bowl of flavourful chicken stock is served together with this dish.
Baby Basket Clams Rice
On the other hand, cơm hến (Baby basket clams rice) manifests the sophisticated cooking traditions of Hue – Vietnam’s former imperial city. This dish in its barest form is a mixture of leftover rice and sauteed clams. Yet to complete it, up to ten various ingredients are required. That includes banana flowers, roasted peanuts, crunchy pork rind, carambola, fresh herbs, chili sauce, and shrimp paste. They work together to create a symphony of textures and flavors. In terms of appearance, cơm hến is a riot of colors. There is bright red from chili, chartreuse from carambola, green from vegetable, purple from shrimp paste, brown from peanuts, and finally white shades from clams and rice.
Sticky rice is widely consumed across Asia. From Japan, Thailand to Indonesia, each has its own way of cooking this staple food. In Vietnam, sticky rice appears in a wide range of dishes such as festive cuisine, pastries, and desserts. But the most popular recipe with this ingredient as the base is xôi.
The term “xôi” is used to describe any dish that is made of steamed sticky rice. It has a denser structure and is tackier than traditional rice. Due to these attributes, xôi is popular as on-the-go breakfasts or mid-day snacks. Diversity is another feature of this dish. Until now no one can keep track of how many sortes of xôi in Vietnam because each region seems to have its own variations. But generally, it can be categorized into savory and sweet options.
A popular breakfast choice in Hanoi, xôi xéo is an outstanding example of savory xôi. This hearty dish comprises sticky rice, mung bean, crispy shallots, and/or meat floss. A dash of turmeric and melted chicken fat are also added to give the rice a glossy yellow tone. Yet mung bean is what makes this dish special. After steaming, the beans are finely pounded and rolled into a large ball. When serving, the vendor will slice the ball diagonally and sprinkle it over the rice. This is how xôi xéo got its name as “xéo” means “diagonal” in Vietnamese.
Boasting an orange-reddish color, xôi gấc is another noteworthy dish in Vietnamese cuisine. The key ingredient of this distinctive sticky rice is gấc, a type of melon first discovered in Vietnam. Specifically, it is made of the aril surrounding the seeds when the fruits are ripe. After removing from the seed, the aril is mixed with sticky rice and then steamed. The result is a dish with a mild taste and a bright appearance.
Xôi gấc is pretty versatile. It can combine with Vietnamese ham to make a savory dish. On the other hand, when paired with shredded coconut and sesame salt, it becomes a sweet treat. Furthermore, due to its vivid color, xôi gấc is a favorite dish on festive occasions such as the Tết holiday, wedding, or birthday.
While the main component of xôi is ripe sticky rice, cốm (green rice flakes) is made of immature ones. During a narrow window between August and October, farmers across Northern Vietnam harvest the young grains and roast them over a low-heat wood fire. After that, they pound the grains in a mortar and pestle until flattened. The finished product should have a yellow-green color and exude a pleasant fragrance. Finally, cốm is wrapped in layers of lotus leaves to preserve the aroma.
As a result of the short harvest time, cốm is a seasonal delicacy. It has a slightly sweet and nutty flavor and can be eaten directly as desserts. The flakes can also combine with other ingredients to make bánh cốm (green rice cake), sweet soup, and even ice cream.