Now that’s an interesting question. Have you ever offered food to the dead? Sound odd? This is a pretty common tradition in Asia, Latin America and many other cultures. It doesn’t have much to do with religion, but if you’re Christian, you might never have heard of it. So it seems quite creepy, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t that similar to inviting ghosts to your house? In fact, we do. But the ghosts here are our family members, so they would do no harm… if we give them enough nutritions to live that is!.
In all seriousness, altar food offerings probably have different meanings in different cultures and we will talk about the meaning of the Vietnamese altar at the end of this article, butan altar offering is more than about just culture and religion, above all, the food offered is the most respectful yet common type of cuisine if you want to go on a daily Vietnam food tour and explore the daily Vietnamese culinary experiences, this is the article for you.
So are you ready? Let’s explore what Vietnamese dead people eat in their after-life!
Yes, chicken! And no, it’s not KFC! Vietnamese are known to embrace chicken, in a Vietnam food tour you might be introduced to Vietnamese chicken feet, roasted chicken, and if you’re crazy enough, chicken intestines, but have you had a chicken cooked whole, with head, beak and feet all attached!? That is the purest form that the chicken on the ancestor’s altar has to be.
The recipe here is super simple. Boil a lot of salt water, clean the chicken (which means washing it and pulling out everything inside), put the chicken in the boiling water with some fragrant herbs, and wait for it to cook. It sounds simple, but it is said that cleaning a chicken is the one skill any Vietnamese girl has to nail before they get married, so it can’t be that easy! After being cooked, the perfect chicken is one that maintains its form, with its wings open and its neck angled upwards. To add a touch of color, people will open its beak and put in a rose or some flower shaped carrots when the it is still hot, then it will look like this. Don’t be freaked out if you see one on your Vietnam food tour!
Whole chicken on the altar (Source: Internet)
2. Ham & sticky rice:
The second most important ingredient in a Vietnamese altar is ham. The name is vaguely translated, so don’t think this is the ordinary Western ham, in which a large chunk of meat is smoked. If you have tasted bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls) on your Vietnam food tour, you’d definitely recognize this.
Vietnamese ham (or giò) is actually a steamed combination of meat or meat substitute pureed very smoothly and mixed with flour and seasoning. According to the variety of the “meat” component, there are many different types of ham. But whatever type of protein is used, the sliced ham will be silky smooth, crunchy and juicy at each bite, flavorful but not too salty.
Beautifully plated giò lụa (Source: Internet)
Because of the unique texture and flavor, giò lụa is a perfect match with sweet, fragrant glutinous rice. If you look everywhere and can’t see a plate of giò on the altar, it’s likely lying on top of a plate of red sticky rice. Depending on the family, sticky rice can be prepared plain or flavored with cochinchin gourd fruit.
According to adapted Chinese culture, red is the color of good luck, so the cochinchin gourd, with its blood-like red innards and slightly sweet earthy flavor, is used very frequently to dye and flavor the rice, especially during the New Year. After being mixed directly into uncooked glutinous rice, each rice grain will be dyed in a beautiful orange color. Then after being cooked, the rice will be shaped into a flower dome, sandwiching a yellow center made of green mung beans for extra vibrancy.
Cochinchin gourd sticky rice in a flower shape (Source: Internet)
Both steamed ham and sticky rice are usually not homemade nowadays as they are quite time consuming. However, they are always inevitable parts of an altar feast.
3. A family meal
In addition to the unusual dishes such as sticky rice and whole chicken, dead people eat much like the living, which in Vietnam consists of white rice, some side dishes, and soup. The food on the altar is usually made to look its best, so dishes are usually colorful with lots of vegetables and many sophisticated ingredients. Some of the typical dishes are:
- Stir fried vegetables: carrots, peas or broccoli with chicken’s intestines.
- Canh bóng: soup with stuffed mushrooms, multi-colored vegetable and boiled pig skin.
- Miến lòng gà: glass noodle soup with chicken organs.
Altar offerings also include simple dishes (Source: Internet)
As you can see, many of these dishes are made with chicken innards, because we simply don’t want to waste any part of the animal. This is something you will probably learn on your Vietnam street food tour.
4. Rice wine
Along with the meal there is always a small platter with small porcelain wine cups and bottle. The wine is a necessity even if your deceased family members don’t drink. It is said that this is for your ancestors to communicate with the gods that bless your household. If you don’t want your house to burn down it’s extremely important that you pour a drink for your grandparents!
Rice wine and cups (Source: Internet)
5. Fruit and other offerings
After the main feast, of course, it’s time for dessert! Something you should know, if you want to have a Vietnam awesome travel food tour, is dessert in Vietnam can only mean fruits. But in altar offerings, the fruit is not simply watermelon cut into quarters.
In Vietnam, there is a rule for plating fruits on the altar called “mâm ngũ quả”, which basically means a platter has to consist of 5 fruits, no more, no fewer! The number 5 represents the five elements of the world. The fruit doesn’t necessarily have to match the elements but it has to have the balance that the elements bring. For example, there is the balance of colors, such as green from grapefruit, red from oranges, yellow from bananas, and the balance of taste, sour, sweet or bland. The types of fruits chosen depend on the region and season, but generally, Northern families put up whatever fruit they can find, whereas in the South, some fruits are considered taboo. Bananas, for instance, are rarely seen on a Southern altar, because in Southern accent, chúi (originally chuối) means something oddly bad.
The five fruit platter (Source: Internet)
An unexpected aspect of the modern altar is that the food offerings sometimes show off the family’s wealth. The grapes are sometimes not normal grapes but $20 grapes from the U.S., for instance. Therefore, instead of local and traditional dessert such as mung bean cakes or chè (a type of sweet soup), Vietnamese people now buy extravagant exported goods to offer their ancestor, who, would probably prefer a sip of chè!
Traditional dessert platter (Source: Internet)
But that is a topic for another day. Food offerings to the deceased for Vietnamese is a lesson about respect. Firstly, to elder and deceased people; when a loved one passes away, they are not put into a memory box somewhere slowly fading away, their image is on display to be honored by future generations. Grandchildren often know of their deceased grandparents through stories told by the altar and so do children with deceased parents. Secondly, it’s about respect for the culture, as previouslymentioned, the food on the altar is not just food, it’s the unification of centuries-old culinary culture, which is why food in the market has changed but the food on the ancestors’ altar mostly stays the same.
Thus, in a Vietnam food tour, the altar cuisine is definitely something you shouldn’t miss an opportunity to learn about. Hope you enjoy learning!
Altar offering is a culture of respect (Source: Internet)