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Back You are here: Home Food & Drink Food & Drink About vietnamese food Philosophy of Vietnamese Cuisine

Philosophy of Vietnamese Cuisine

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Vietnamese people grant a great importance to eating.  It is the first necessity in our daily life and culture.  Nothing is more amazing to see the use of "an" as the prefix in a great number of words.  Among them we find: ăn nói ( to speak ), ăn mặc ( to wear ), ăn ở ( to live ), ăn tiêu ( to consume ), ăn ngủ ( to sleep ), ăn trộm ( to steal ), ăn gian ( to cheat ), ăn hiếp ( to bully ) and so on...It is usually said:  Trời  đánh tránh bữa  ăn  to means even God dare not disturb the Vietnamese during our meal.

Our eating is carefully elaborated according to the concept of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements which serves as the fundamental basis of our Van Lang civilization

Yin-Yang is the representation of the two poles of all things, a duality that is at the same time contradictory and complementary.  Of the nature Yin is whatever is fluid, cold, humid, passive, somber, interior, female in essence like the sky, the moon, night, water, winter.  Of the nature Yang is whatever is solid, hot, luminous, active, exterior, male in essence like the earth, the sun, fire, summer.  Human is the hyphen between these two poles or rather between the Earth (Dương) and the Sky ( Âm ).  Harmony may only be found in the equilibrium that human brings to its environment, universe and body. Vietnamese food therefore finds all its meticulous preparation and particularity in the dialectic relationship of the theory of Yin and Yang.  It also shows the respect of the millennial cultural tradition of a farming country and of a civilization known for its rice farming on flooded rice fields.


Yin and Yang philosophy in Vietnamese cooking:

The Vietnamese fierce will to give a big attention to the balance of Yin and Yang is found again in their way of eating.  A good meal must meet a certain number of criteria  where interdependence cannot be ignored:


1) It must be in agreement with the weather.  It cannot be defined as good even when it is served with tasty dishes.

2) It must occur at a pleasant place and time otherwise it is not deemed good either.

3) It must be shared with close friends otherwise the word good cannot be attributed to it.


That is why coming from the criteria mentioned above, a good Vietnamese meal is not necessarily well stuffed.  Sometimes meagerness is found in a good meal.  It is that of Vietnamese poor peasants where a clever mixture of aromatic herb flavors plays a preponderant role.
The judicious search for balance of Yin and Yang is undeniably shown in the dishes, the human body and between man and the environment.  In the Vietnamese culinary art three following important points are turned up:

1) Yin-Yang equilibrium in the makeup of the dishes.

Vietnamese people tend to distinguish dishes according to classification they established in relation to the five elements of Yin-Yang: hàn ( cold ) ( Water ), nhiệt ( hot ) (Fire), ôn  ( warm ) ( Wood ), lương ( fresh ) ( Metal) and bình ( temperate ) (Earth).  They take into account the compensation, interaction and combination of ingredients and condiments in the elaboration of a dish.   One notices a series of vegetables and condiments in in the makeup of Vietnamese recipes.  Known for curing illnesses caused by the "cold" ( coughs, colds etc...), ginger (gung), the condiment of the Yang characteristics, is visible in all the dishes having tendency to bear the cold: Bí đao ( marrow quash ), cải bắp ( cabbage ) rau cải ( lettuce ) and cá ( fish ).  Hot pepper is of Yang nature ( hot ) and frequently used in dishes having cold, temperate or foul-smelling characteristics ( seafood, steamed fish for example ).   One used to eat fermented chicken's or duck's eggs ( trứng gà lộn, trứng vịt lộn ) having the Yin characteristics ( Âm ) along with a very flavorful leaf ( rau răm ) of the Yang ( Dương ) tendency.  The Yin (Âm) bearing water melon is always eaten with the Yang ( Dương ) natured salt.  The most typical

2) Yin-Yang equilibrium in the human body.
Vietnamese food is sometimes used as an effective medicine to cure dysfunctions caused by the loss of balance in Yin and Yang in the human body.  For the Vietnamese, the scenario seen in nature is also found inside their bodies.  When an organ becomes too Yin, it leads to a slowdown in physical metabolism (feeling cold, slow heartbeats, indigestion etc...).  On the other side, if it becomes too Yang, it triggers an acceleration of physical metabolism (feeling hot, fast heartbeats, physical and mental hyperactivity etc...).  A well-balanced Yin-Yang maintains life and assure good health.  To regain this balance a person whose illness is of Yin nature  ( Âm ) must eat dishes bearing Yang (Dương) characteristics.  On the contrary a Yang-natured illness must be treated with Yin-natured dishes.  To the Vietnamese, eating is taking care of oneself.  Constipation (a Yang illness) can only be cured among the Yin dishes (chè đậu đen, chè đậu xanh etc..( meung bean,  black bean compote, a Vietnamese dessert).  On the other hand, Yin-natured diarrhea or stomach ache can be treated effectively with Yang-natured seasoned dishes ginger (gừng, galangal (riềng)).  The cold a Yin-natured illness must find its solution in a bowl of rice porridge full of ginger slices.

3)  Yin-Yang equilibrium with the environment.
One used to say in Vietnamese: Ăn theo mùa ( Eating according to season ).  This saying reflects the state of mind of the Vietnamese to be always in phase with nature and the environment in food.
In Summer, the supply of heat favors an abundance of vegetables, seafoods and fish. Therefore the Vietnamese people tend to eat vegetables and fish. They used to boil vegetables, pickle them (dưa) or make salads (gõi).  Dishes that contain water are appreciated.  It is the case of pho, the national stock of the Vietnamese people.  Bitter and sour flavors cannot be absent either in the Vietnamese cuisine.  It is the case of a mildly sour soup prepared with fish (or shrimps), tamarind (or pine apple) and tomatoes (canh chua cá,  canh chua tôm ).

On the other hand in winter, to resist the cold, the Vietnamese prefer to eat meat and fatter dishes (of Yang characteristics).  We notice a massive use of oily liquids (vegetable or animal) and condiments (ginger, chilly, garlic, pepper etc...).  Slow cooking meat on low heat in fish sauce (rim thit), sauteing  (xào) or frying meat (rán) are the cooking methods frequently used and conformed to climatic variations.  Known as a tropical country (Yang)(Dương), Vietnam possesses a great number of dishes of cold characteristics ( Âm ).  That is what the father of Vietnamese traditional medicine  Hải Thượng Lãn Ông  ( Lê Hữu Trác )   had an opportunity to emphasize in his work entitled "Nữ Công Thắng Lãm".  Out of 120 foodstuffs, he succeeded in picking about a hundred of Yin characteristics.  This remark puts in evidence the unquestionable preference of Vietnamese for Yin dishes in their traditional food structure and the importance they keep granting to the search for a balance with nature and the environment.
Vietnamese cuisine finds more and more followers in the West.  Unlike other cuisines that play with sauces, it prefers using a lot of aromatic herbs and condiments.  It is a cuisine that stands out for its lightness and digestibility.  Much less fatty than Chinese cuisine, it does not miss showing its subtlety and originality.  No less than 500 dishes are counted among them remains the imperial roll (chả giò).  In this cuisine one finds not only a harmony of flavors and a multitude of subtle variations around a bowl of rice but also a profound and intimate agreement with nature and the environment. 
There, Yin-Yang does not lose its vitality, the Vietnamese people, our soul and our temperament.

Five element correspondence
Vietnamese cuisine is influenced by the Asian principle of five elements.
Many Vietnamese dishes include five spices (Vietnamese: ngũ vị): spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (Earth), corresponding to: five organs (Vietnamese: ngũ tạng): gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach and urinary bladder.
Vietnamese dishes also include five types of nutrients (Vietnamese: ngũ chất): powder, water or liquid, mineral elements, protein and fat.
Vietnamese cooks try to have five colours (Vietnamese: ngũ sắc): white (metal), green (wood), yellow (Earth), red (fire) and black (water) in their dishes.
Dishes in Vietnam appeal to gastronomes via five senses (Vietnamese: năm giác quan): food arrangement attracts eyes, sounds come from crisp ingredients, five spices detected on the tongue, aromatic ingredients coming mainly from herbs stimulate the nose and some meals, especially finger food, can be perceived by touching.
Vietnamese dish remains the fish sauce.  In the preparation of this national sauce, it is noticed there are 5 flavors classified according to the 5 element of Yin and Yang: mặn ( salty ) with the fish juice ( nước mắm ), đắng ( bitter ) with the zest of lemon ( vỏ chanh ), chua ( sour ) with the juice of lemmon ( or vinegar ), cay ( hot ) with powdered or crushed hot pepper and ngọt ( sweet ) with powdered sugar.  Those five flavors ( mặn, đắng, chua, cay, ngọt ) combined and found in the national sauce of Vietnamese people correspond  respectively to five elements defined in the theory of Yin and Yang( Thủy, Hỏa, Mộc, Kim, Thổ)  ( Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, Earth).