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My brother and I have been eating cereal for dessert since 1981. We arrived from Vietnam late that evening and the government placed my family in a little bed & breakfast in Highbury. My father bought a box of Frosties and a bottle of milk, saying, you’re going to love this. It was our first “English” meal. We did indeed love it so much – even though I was only 5 at the time, I still remember my first bite. Every time I see Frosties, I think of him. If I eat Frosties, I am five again.
I have been telling everyone who comes to the Vietnamese Cooking Classes I hold at home in my little kitchen about the Vietnamese diet and how healthy it is for you because Vietnamese people follow some philosophies with what they eat and make it their way of life.
The two main philosophy of Vietnamese food is the balance of flavour – between hot, sour, sweet, salty and umani and also the balance of hot and cold foods – not the temperature of food but of the hot and cold elements and energy of foods. The flavour and the hot & cold elements are both like the ying and the yang, there is a balance to everything, like both sides of a coin. What goes up must go down. The cook has to combine the right combination to make the perfect tasty dish for good spirits, good health and well-being.
Sweet, Sour, Salty Flavours / Hot & Cold Elements
In the Western world, there is not much understanding of hot and cold foods but in many cultures of the Eastern world, this is essential to daily life and its a second nature, a second language and most people have a relationship with what they eat and their body – understanding how you physically feel and being aware of the consequences, the cause and effects of what you eat. Everyone is different. There is a conscious decision of what is eaten and a purposeful balance of it. People tend to judge the hot and cold balance of their bodies by the condition of skin, hair, inner feeling of your gut, your nerves and temperament.
Hot Chicken, Cold Choi Sum
Hot Tofu, Hot Mushrooms, Cold Asparagus
For example: Hot food is chicken, ginger, potatoes, bread, chocolate, mango, meat, milk, carrots Cold food is green leaves, courgettes, herbs, watermelon, melon, cucumber, seaweed, most fruits and vegetables.
Ying & Yang elements in cooking ingredients for one meal
Almost everybody will know what is hot and what is cold from their mothers/ family from birth. When someone is feeling a bit ill, they will always refer to what they have been eating lately, “I’ve been eating too many fried chicken wings,” says a boy crouching on his Honda,”thats why I’ve got all these spots and a cough, gotta go and get some Pennyswort Juice to cool my body down.”
“I am coughing because I have been eating too many mangos,” says one old lady in April, “its the mango season, I get this every year because I have a tree growing full of them in the back yard, I have to eat them all before they rot, I can’t sell enough of them. Sometimes I swap one with the Dragon Fruit woman. She needs to warm up and I need to cool down.”
“I’ve got a cold, I was caught in the rain,” says my cousin,”lets go and get some chicken noodle soup with ginger to warm up my body.”
Bun Bo Hue from Central Vietnam
Hu Tieu Nam Vang
In the mornings, people normally eat a steaming hot noodle soup like Pho, rich in hot spices, beef or chicken because it wakes up the senses. Your body has been laying cold all night, what a way to warm it up – Eating something cold like cereal for breakfast is unheard of, (that was why my father gave it to us in the evening). For lunch, cold noodle salads or summer rolls are eaten. For the evening, you can have the combination of both.
Saigon Summer Rolls
How you feel and your relationship with what you eat is the key to your happiness in Vietnam. In London, I see many of my friends have difficulties with food and what to eat to stay slim, be healthy and feel well inside and out but all they seem to do is crave chocolate and burgers, (in colder climates, we do crave hotter foods) instead of knowing how their bodies are reacting because they do not know/ understand about the hot and the cold or what their bodies are saying.
There is nothing wrong with having a burger, but you’ve got to know that you need to balance out the burger which is essentially making your body hot, anxious, and heavy. You can’t eat it all the time, you’ve got to balance it out with plenty of cold vegetables or fruit juices. I have often said that I am not a fan of burgers, nor my brother or anyone I have met in Vietnam because I don’t like the feeling of being weighed down and irritable more than I love the taste of a burger.
In colder climates, we need more hot food such as meat but in warmer climates we need more cold foods. There is not one rule, but many, of which we all learn with time and experience. For most, its about placing importance in what you put in your body.
Fast food chains are opening up like weeds in Saigon and people do go and eat there but I always hear comments like, “I can’t eat that everyday, I feel as heavy as an ox, I need to drink something refreshing, to get rid of the fat in those french fries. I swear I am going to break out in spots overnight – lets go get something cooling to eat.”
Regular meal at lunch or dinner
However, eating just cold foods, lots of vegetables doesn’t mean you’ll be better off. Everything must be in moderation and in good balance.
If your body is cold, for instance, you have a cold and you intake lots of cold things like orange juice, its counterproductive. You must warm up your body and things like ginger really helps. Get your Vitamin C from steamed vegetables instead. Have a chicken soup with ginger, carrots and potatoes.
If you have a sore throat for instance, cool it down with orange juice or a basil seed drink.
Not frog’s spawn, its a delicious basil seed drink
This is a simple but also a complex subject but since there is no health care system in Vietnam and going to the doctor means you have to have money, people have always used food as medicine. Food is for everything and eating well keeps you from needing the doctor in the first place. Eating the right things when you are unwell is paramount to your recovery.
Congee with Chicken & Coriander
My mother always tells me that I must eat things like congee, something very light so that my body is not overworking trying to digest instead of healing. Congee with chicken, ginger and coriander always makes ill days bearable.
Will find out more when I am in Vietnam. This is such an exciting but complex subject.