Rice and bread

Rice and bread

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
8 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705262
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

Grains of life

Legendary Hanoian publicist Huu Ngoc recalls that as a child he once accidentally dropped some grains of rice on the floor. His mother clipped him around the ears and scolded him with the words: ‘every grain of rice is like a pearl!’

This anecdote illustrates the high regard in which this everyday food staple is held, in a country whose culture has been defined by millennia of wet rice cultivation.

Rice does, quite simply, belong to the very fabric of Vietnamese life. No meal is complete without rice. No wedding, no funeral, no New Year’s Eve celebration can be held without a rice dish carrying a special meaning. Rice is turned into flour, paper, noodles and even into alcohol. Almost half the population is connected with rice production in one way or another. Rice is everywhere. In the countryside, every available plot of land seems to be turned into a rice paddy, to the point where currently more than 1.2 million hectares of farmland are devoted to growing this grain.

Rice is considered a gift from the gods, and many myths and rituals illustrate its importance. One of the most endearing and poignant traditions is that the King himself had to be the first person to plough a rice paddy at the beginning of the lunar year.

Glutinous rice was the first variety under cultivation, with hard rice being introduced much later. Despite that late arrival, hard rice quickly overtook the sticky varieties in importance as it was easier to grow and had a much higher yield. Sticky rice was soon used mainly for special occasions such as ancestor worship and other rites and celebrations. By the late 18th century, some 70 different rice strains were under cultivation, and a cookbook written by the scholar Le Huu Trac in 1760 contained no less than 16 different recipes for cooking glutinous rice.

Historians have long assumed that the Chinese, who had been practising irrigation agriculture in the Yellow River Valley before invading Vietnam in the first century AD, introduced rice to the Red River Delta. More recent archaeological finds, however, show evidence of domestication of wild rice on the slopes north of the Red River as early as 4000 BC. Dykes, initially built as protection against flooding, were later used to regulate irrigation.

The influences of rice cultivation on Vietnam’s culture might even run deeper than myths, history and traditions. Huu Ngoc maintains that growing rice and the village culture associated with it have formed the national character itself. Centuries of toiling in the paddies have ingrained the ethics of hard work and of valuing collective needs over individual ones, as well as a belief in the necessity of cooperation.

Being a foodstuff and a national symbol has also turned this humble staple into a political subject matter. Preoccupied with nation building, 19th century emperor Minh Mang promoted a unified national cuisine based on wet rice, fish sauce and the use of chopsticks. Ever since, the foundations of political power in Vietnam have firmly sat in the nation’s rice paddies.

The political travails of his successor, emperor Gia Long, provides a case in point. Faced with the dilemma of whether to ship the surplus rice from the fertile Mekong region up north to shore up his political rule or to sell it off to other countries for hard cash, his solution was to officially ban exports, but turn a blind eye to members of his dynasty selling the grains on the sly.

The seesaw of abundance and scarcity has preoccupied the country’s rulers and citizens ever since rice became a major trading commodity in the 19th century, and famines and shortages are still etched in the country’s collective memory.

Most recently, the fact that after the Vietnam War, a country full of rice paddies had to import this staple triggered the Doi Moi policies of economic reforms in 1986, and set Vietnam on the path to becoming the second largest rice exporter globally that it is today.

Recipes in this Chapter

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