In the small town of Phan Thiet, a small town by the sea, where the traffic isn’t as condensed and the noise isn’t a hum that vibrates your body like in Sai Gon there lives my mother’s family. She came from the fish sauce town where if you step a bit out of the centre, the smell lingers of rotten fish and seeps into your soul and somehow rotten fish becomes like perfume.
I come here every year or so and my favourite thing is to have a typical everyday meal with the family.
A plate of fried morning glory with garlic, pan fried mackerel with sweet and chilli fish sauce or sweet and sour squid with a bowl of hot and sour pineapple fish soup.
This is how Vietnamese people tend to eat every lunch time and dinner if they can be close to their home and family. At home, there is usually incense burning by the fat laughing Buddha. It is a delight to worship a god thats into eating and enjoying life!
Everybody is set a place, the rice pot is usually bought to the table and before you can start enjoying the meal, sometimes, grace is said. To be polite and if you are a guest, you must say, “Moi…aunt, uncle, father, mother” starting with the eldest member. If you are the youngest, you will have a lot of Moi-ing to do. Its a greeting like bon appetite, or a welcome or enjoy-your-food.
When I was there last in April, I noticed that my aunt, my mother’s sister always had a place set aside for someone but they never appear to be coming. So I asked her, why is there a place here and who is it for whose always late? And she told that it was a child she had who passed away when he was a baby. I stumbled, shocked and frozen in surprise. We don’t forget him, we always remember him at every meal and pray to him that he is also eating and not hungry in his next life.
My cousin goes on to say that she believes in his spirit as a guiding soul who always pulls them out of bad times and prays for him every day.
Humbled, we all start to eat. As a guest, I am always given the best pieces of fish. If someone sees my bowl empty of food, they hand me a delicious piece of something. Its hard to turn down even after a while when you are full as you’d be insulting someone’s kind gesture of love. The trick is to always have your rice bowl with contents but don’t overload it. Only take what you are about to eat but it is also affectionate if you take a good piece of something like meat or fish and place it into someone else’s bowl – the person you favour or most fond of.
The soup is poured into the bowl when you are finishing off the rice, clears and cleans it so you can give the person nearest to the rice pot a fresh bowl to serve you more rice. No grain should go un-wasted as it is sinful when people outside go hungry.
Its a lovely family etiquette and often when I eat with my Far Eastern friends, we do the same, a special thing between us to serve each other.
Join my Vietnamese Cooking Club where we show you how to make typical dishes and enjoy it like -a family- Vietnamese breakfast, lunch and supper, 8- 10 dishes to cook and learn. We will be talking about yin and yang – the elements of food and its interaction with our bodies, Vietnamese traditions and ettiquette as well as unraveling ingredients and recipes.