Living in the 21st century, when I mention Vietnamese cuisine to foreigners, people instantly think of pho, banh mi and our country’s most alluring and nutritious delicacies. But did you know there was a time when the food on your Vietnam cultural tours was not accessible to us Vietnamese? And that dinner for us used to mean stale rice or root vegetable to survive daily hunger? I’m talking about the time during the war.
Having been born in and living through the toughest time of the American War (or as Americans call it, the Vietnam War - Vietnam cultural tours will tell you more about this), my parents always drill in my head, “You’re so much luckier than us. At your age, for snacks and breakfast we ate air, and lunch and dinner stale rice mixed with cassava roots”, so they’d say. Although extremely painful those words are, the stories about the food shortage during the war have become a part of my childhood, partly telling me to not take things for granted and, ironically partly becoming a funny meal-time entertainment.
The echoing irony of the war (Source: Internet)
I am not sure what these stories will become for you, but if you are a food and stories lover like me, there’s nothing more exciting than reading about the past of food. So let’s us walk down the black and white corridor of history and explore Vietnamese war time cuisine!
Here’s a brief description of what a wartime meal looked like:
The final rice grains in Thanh Hoa (Source: Internet)
Rice is supposed to be white, but health-geeks nowadays who eat non-white rice probably survive on barley rice or purple rice because they are more nutritious. Vietnamese, on the other hand, generally like white rice, but in the war time, their survival supply was usually called “stale rice” or “bug-filled rice” and sometimes, when there was not even enough of those, there were substitutes.
The most common substitute for rice in the war time was root starch, which includes potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and, a favorite that pretty much every household used back then, cassava roots. These roots are boiled or steamed, then cut into pieces.
Cassava roots with salt – a wartime specialty (Source: Internet)
But here’s what hilarious. Some people (especially culinary novices, and those who ignored their tour guides in Vietnam cultural tours), at the thought of Vietnamese food, wouldn’t think of rice as the first ingredient, it sounds more like Thai or Indian food they’d say. But the truth is Vietnamese love rice. We include it in every meal and believe rice is the only thing that can fill our stomachs. So because a handful of potatoes was just classified as a snack food, to make them a meal, they have to mix it in rice, or at least make it look like rice, that’s how “độn” rice became a wartime delicacy! The “dish” literally means covering up potatoes with rice, or vice versa, rice with potatoes, depending on which was more available.
And guess what? Sometimes even potatoes were a rarity. Then, people come to the final option called “bug-filled wheat flour” and pearl barley.
Wheat flour needs a story of its own. Obviously, it is not usually an inclusion in contemporary Vietnamese cuisine but the ingredient was surprisingly popular in the war, especially in the South, popularized by Americans. (That is also why dishes such as wheat noodles or bread is more familiar in the South than the North, something usually emphasized on Southern Vietnam cultural tourism). But if the flour is spotted with bugs’ faeces, the only way to consume it is to put it in with rice, or steam it on its own, although occasionally the reeking smell of cockroaches’ “perfume” is said to be impossible to swallow.
The first banh mi shop of Saigon
Strangely enough, pearl barley in the West nowadays is considered a health-food, a super food even, but in Vietnam, it used to be poor people’s nightmare. The reason is because the grain is very rich in fiber, so if it was not soaked in water overnight it would have most certainly broken diners’ teeth. There’s a story of a mother finding her son’s broken teeth and blood on the floor, and in a panic she found out that he had eaten raw pearl barley in excessive hunger.
Those stories are not at all uncommon. That’s actually how Vietnamese children in the 50s were raised and lived till this day, on rice covered potatoes, or bug-filled wheat flour, or impossible-to-digest pearl barley. It explains why until today, starch is still a main part of Vietnamese people’s diet. The past trauma tells them to eat white rice until they are full, to fulfill the deprivation of that lovely sweet taste when they were younger.
Civilians lining up for their “protein” (Source: Internet)
2. Protein, savory side-dishes
The words “protein” or “dishes” seem wrong when in reality it was only scraps of food provided monthly, or in the countryside, some crayfish or fish caught in the not-yet-bombed rivers, added to the said bowl of starch to add a little flavor. The “side dish” then could have been a few drops of fish sauce, or tiny crayfish stir fried with star-fruit (a sour fruit available in any garden), or pig’s fat fried until crispy.
Whatever the “protein” was, it had to be processed following two rules: 1. super salty, and 2. super oily, to mask the fact that there was no actual nutrition there. (If you want to witness this style of diet in the modern world, just go to a commoners’ food tavern anywhere in Vietnam, it’s still there). A daily “protein” portion back then would consist of a single scrap of food on top of a bowl of “rice” (full or a third full), which people didn’t eat with the “rice”, instead, they let the flavor of the scrap seep into the bland starch, leaving the salty scrap to the end to savor with utmost enthusiasm!
However, as little as they had, poor people at that time would find themselves incredibly lucky if compared to prisoners in Con Dao prison, who survived on “dragon eggs omelet” and “homeland’s green young rice”. These sound fancy but are actually “code names” for fried peanuts and dried moldy rice! This food wasn’t known to the public until the war was over because they were prepared secretly, hidden from guards within filthy cells. The specialty “green young rice”, for example, was really left over rice being dried in the prison’s rare sunlight, and was only used for starving punishments.
Wartime daily meal (Source: Internet)
How about vegetables? As any Vietnam cultural tours would brag to you, Vietnamese cuisine is known to be rich in fiber, and it’s true our consumption of vegetables today is among the top in the world, but when houses were bombed, so were green gardens. And there was a long time when Vietnamese soldiers were really good at disguising themselves because everyone was as green as the forests they were hiding in due to vitamin deficiency! Back then, vegetables were eaten to feel like you had something to chew on, the most popular of which were sweet potato leaves, which is now a common food for cattle, and banana flower buds, which contain neither taste nor nutrition, although it is still a countryside favorite nowadays. With a spare bit of oil these “delicacies” can be stir-fried, boiled or eaten raw, right in the garden as a “healthy” snack.
Beside these main meals, there are so many other ironic stories of the war and cuisine. Such as banh tet, a cylindrical glutinous rice cake (which can be enjoyed on cultural holidays in Vietnam tours), used to hide bombs and secret messages, or the story in which people sold half of their fortune to get a cup of white rice for a wartime wedding ceremony, or people from the countryside cycling over ten kilometers to bring edible goods to help their relatives in the city, only to get caught and robbed midway.
An ironic war memory is to be passed on (Source: Internet)
It is from these half laughable, half tear-jerking stories that make the wars forever a part of the Vietnamese culture. The people who experienced it told them to their children so that they don’t take the peace they have for granted, and their children, for the lessons and cultural values, and the irony of the tales, pass them onto someone else, maybe people from all over the globe, as I am now doing to you. So in a nutshell, I hope that you all enjoyed this rather casual story time, and if you ever book Vietnam cultural tours and travel private day to enjoy our modern cuisine during that day, maybe spare a few minutes to contemplate its somber past before digging in.