Viet Nam News
By Bạch Liên
Viet Nam is famous for its street food, but Claudia Elma is none too impressed.
The Italian expat living in Hà Nội bemoans the fact that “culture of eating vegetarian food does not exist in the art of street food in Ha Noi.
"It is not good news for vegans who love street-side food stalls. So I normally take out meat from the dishes. For instance, I have phở without meat, or I chose xi dầu (soy sauce) instead of nước mắm (fish sauce).”
There is some good news for Elma and her fellow vegans.
Vegetarian food, mostly vegan, has become increasingly popular in Việt Nam over the last few years. All major cities, including the capital, have many restaurants that serve vegan food, and their number is increasing everyday.
There are many reasons that more and more people are turning vegan, even in Viet Nam, where daily meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, invariably contain meat. In fact, all iconic dishes in the national cuisine, whether it is pho or bun or banh my, are meat-based.
For many Vietnamese, a vegan diet is traditionally confined to two sacred Buddhist days a month, an observance of compassion for all sentient beings.
But increasing numbers of people are also turning to a plant-based diet for health reasons, and are strengthened in their resolve by environmental considerations.
With its abundance of delicious vegetables, fruits and roots, Việt Nam has all the conditions to cater to vegans.
Vegans can find in Việt Nam a variety of vegetarian dishes. However, the most common vegan dishes are made of đậu tương (soybeans). Apart from tofu, steamed and fried, soybeans lend themselves to tương đậu nành (soya paste), chao (fermented tofu), chả luạ chay (veggie Vietnamese ham) and a wide variety of other dips and dishes.
Since soybeans are nutritious, rich in protein and calcium, and non-fattening, they are a good replacement for animal meat. They are also said to be useful in treating several illnesses, including heart disease and cancer.
Vegans can also find in Việt Nam many dishes that look like they’re made with real meat. For example, chicken legs are made of citronella stems with a special tofu wrapping that even has the texture of meat. Barbecued pork chops, beef wrapped in la lot leaves, stewed chicken, steamed fish – the list goes on and on.
The faux meat dishes are consumed more in the South than in the North, says Phạm Tuấn Hải, a judge in the Masterchef Vietnam reality television show.
Although vegetarian and vegan food has become more popular nationwide, the importance of vegetarian food differs from region to region.
Several decades ago, any mention of vegetarian food evoked Hue City in central Việt Nam.
“The art of vegetarian food first appeared in the central provinces of Viet Nam, and Hue was one of the first cities in the country where chay (vegetarian) meals appeared. Vegetarian meals are very important to the people of Hue,” says Hải.
Historically, vegetarian food first became popular during the reign of the Ly Dynasty in 11th century. However, it reached its zenith as a important part of royal cuisine during the long rule of the Nguyễn Dynasty since early 19th century, when Huế emerged as a Buddhist centre.
“There were strict rules on picking the right ingredients, cooking and offering vegetarian food to royalty during the reign of the Nguyễn Dynasty,” says vegetarian food expert Hồ Đắc Thiếu Anh of Huế.
She explains that the team of chefs serving royalty had to offer the King the finest food as part of a royal ritual, a prayer for peace and prosperity in the kingdom. During this special ritual, the King kept himself clean and his mind tranquil. The cooks also had to be clean and extremely selective of the food they chose to make the offerings. Above all, the vegetarian feast had to be presented beautifully, with ornate decorations.
Since then, eating vegetarian food has become a tradition in Huế.
In all pagodas in Huế, every month, on the first and full moon days of the month, monks and nuns make vegetarian meals to feed the devotees.
Restaurants that normally sell non-vegetarian food used to close on these two days or change their menu to serve vegetarian food.
Most Huế residents turn vegetarian during the first and full moon days of the month and on other festive days. The first day of the New Lunar Year, for instance, is a day of vegetarian meals for many families in the city.
“I started to eat vegetarian food when I was very small, with other members of my family, so this has become a habit. Twice a month, mother always cooked vegetarian dishes from vegetables, or tofu and told us not to eat onion and garlic.
Now, I want to stay healthy. And I also want to cleanse my body,” says Nguyễn Ngọc Lan, explaining her vegetarianism.
Not as important
According to Hải, vegetarian food does not carry the same importance as in Huế in terms of the royal history and Buddhist leanings, but its popularity has been increasing nevertheless.
Some restaurants in HCM City have begun to close on first and full moon days, but these are very few in number. The number of street restaurants serving vegetarian food, however, has exploded. In fact, it is in HCM City that the whole range of vegetarian eateries can be found with ease, from the most humble streetside stall to the most luxurious, up market places.
Also particular to HCM City are whole stretches of a street or alley that exclusively serve vegetarian food. The Chay Xóm Giá, for instance, is located on a 100m long alley on Hồng Bàng Street in District 11. Sixteen stalls sell vegetarian food at cheap prices, and these are frequented by low-income workers.
The late entrant
In comparison to Huế and HCM City, vegetarian food has been late in coming to Hà Nội, but even here, the difference from a few years ago is apparent. Like other provinces in the north, vegetarian food was mostly served in pagodas, but there are now several dozen places in the capital city that serve just vegan food. These places, like in other cities, often carry photographs and/or quotes from world-famous people, including scientists like Albert Einstein and Hollywood celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Kate Winslet, to promote a vegetarian or vegan diet.
As Hải observes, contrary to HCM City and Huế, people in Hà Nội can not find vegetarian food in street-side stalls. A street-side stall that sells only vegetarian or vegan food is a rarity here, but that looks set to change soon. — VNS
Some vegetarian restaurants
1. Ưu Đàm Chay, 34 Hàng Bài St
2. An Lạc, 109 Trần Hưng Đạo St
3. Zenith Yoga Café : 62 A Lý Thường Kiệt street
1. Giác Nguyên: 360 Trần Phú, Dist 5
2. Lẩu nấm chay (mushroom hotpot) An Nhiên: 8A – 10 Phạm Ngũ Lão, Gò Vấp district
3. The Organic: 54 Lý Văn Phức, District 1
Liên Hoa Thư Quán: 3 Lê Quý Đôn Street
Diệu Lạc: 1 Hàn Mặc Tử Street
Thanh Liễu: 50 Nguyễn Công Trứ Street