interviews one of Viet Nam's experts on vegetarian food, Ho Dac Thieu Anh, who comes from a well-respected family in Hue.
|Fruity burst: Crispy outside, these fruit spring rolls have a fresh, juicy inside. — VNS Photos Nguyen Luong Hieu
Nguyen My Ha
Could you please explain why you focus on vegetarian food, even though it isn't very popular in Viet Nam?
In the larger world of Vietnamese cuisine, I am fascinated by how we make delicious, clean, healthy food for everyone. We have a saying, "Illness comes from the mouth," which literally means the food and the way we consume food shall decide if we are healthy or sick. Our country's vegetation world offers abundant vegetables, roots and fruits that are not only delicious and healthy, but can also cure some diseases.
Our ancestors already knew how to make good food – I mean, vegetarian – from the very simple meals of ordinary people to the very sophisticated feasts of royalty. I have noticed that over time, more and more vegetarian restaurants are opening up and offering a wide range of good food. People now pay more attention to preserving the environment we live in, as well as protect ourselves by choosing the right food to consume.
"Thuc pho bach thien" is Viet Nam's only cookbook written in poem form. It consists of 100 recipes highlighting Hue cuisine, and was written by the Great Scholar, Lady Truong-Dang Thi Bich, with the penname Ty Que. Could you pick some vegetarian recipes from it?
I can only find three. They are Canh Hue Ly (Ly Flower Soup), Nam Moi Nuong (Baked Mushrooms) and Khoai Muong Luoc (Boiled Sweet Potato or Morning Glory Buds). There are four others, but they are sauces rather than a dish: Me Phet, (Tamarind Sauce), Tuong Dau Nanh (Soya Paste), Chao (Fermented Tofu) and Muoi Me (Salted Ground Sesame).
Most of the 15 vegetable recipes in the epic cookbook include meat or fish.
There were strict rules on picking the right ingredients, cooking and offering vegetarian food to royalty during the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty. The Royal Cook Team had to offer the King the finest food made yet with the feast, as part of a prayer ritual wishing for prosperity in the kingdom and peace for the people. During the country's 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.
Could you give us some expert advice on how to slowly move towards becoming a vegetarian?
Again, I must reiterate that Viet Nam is very rich in vegetables and fruits. It's a healthy source of food that you can have right here, and you don't have to make too much of an effort to fetch them from a far-away country. You don't need to spend too much time looking for wonder food. Fresh produce is around you here in this country. If you want to slowly start having vegetarian food, take it slowly. Have one vegetarian meal a month, and then go from there to once a week and then to once a day. If you want to push yourself further, you can try having only vegetarian food for a chunk of six, eight or ten days at a time. By then, you are able to handle the change, and you can switch to becoming a vegetarian permanently. The trick is to take it slowly. Because if your stomach is familiar with consuming meat, you may feel hungry and empty at first. Start with your favourite vegetable and do not eat it too much because if you do, you won't like it anymore and you won't want to have it next time. Eat a small meal instead, and have some crackers or fruit between meals.
I've noticed that from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City, many restaurants close on the first and full moon days. Why is that so?
In Sai Gon, some restaurants close on those days. Being vegetarian has slowly become popular, so many people choose not to have meat on the first and full moon days to stay healthy. Not to mention the Buddhists – they, of course, do not have meat during those days. Not many customers show up, then they close. Another reason comes from the restaurant owners. If they are practicing Buddhists they might also not consume meat on those days.
|Abundant: Viet Nam is blessed with many varieties of fresh and home-grown vegetables, roots and fruit, which are healthy and delicious.
We Vietnamese uphold our ideals quite strongly. For example, someone would pray to God, and say that he or she would be vegetarian for a certain period of time in return for a favour for themselves or a loved one. When people would like to ask for something, or feel remorseful for what they have done in the past, they sometimes go vegetarian for a designated time so that they feel better or relieved.
For me, I am a vegetarian most of the time so that I can cleanse my physical being. For me, being vegetarian means it must be the least trouble for people involved, and it depends on the occasion and situations where I find myself in. If I go to a wedding party and the they have meat on the table, I follow other diners and eat it. Because if I tell them I don't eat meat, then they would have to order veggie food for me, and by saying that, I give others more work to do and add stress. If my being veggie creates more trouble for the host, then the main reason for me being vegetarian won't be fulfilled.
As you can see now, many people still make vegetarian food look and taste just like their meaty siblings. What's your take on that?
For me, I don't buy into that concept. If it's vegetarian food, then it's just gluten cooked with gluten with some added chemical flavours and spices, or even MSG. I must have the least amount of processed food possible. It needs to be fresh and balanced.
If you are a veggie for health reasons, then taking in more chemicals and additives won't do you any good. If you are a practicing Buddhist, then your mind won't be clear when you don't have meat but still take in its imitations. Your intentions need to be clean and clear as well.
It seems to be trendy nowadays, with many people in the West becoming vegetarians. Do you wish Vietnamese people would follow this trend?
It's a good trend. We definitely need to do that. You see, we have plenty of vegetables and fruits, and our cooks are very talented. They can create many different dishes with the same ingredients. I honestly wish Vietnamese people would eat more vegetarian food. It is less expensive, good for our health and keeps our minds fresh and joyful. Here's a couple of verses I look up to:
"An chi chao ga, chao vit, chao thit bo cau
Thuong em anh hup mieng canh bau mat rang"
A man to his beloved, "No need to dream of chicken, duck or pigeon soup,
When I'm in love with you, I would take a gourd soup, which soothes my palate!"
What's your favourite vegetarian dish? Could you share its recipe with our readers?
I love all vegetarian dishes. In the winter, I love fruit spring rolls, which have cubes of apple, dragon fruit, banana, pineapple and watermelon, wrapped in a rice paper, dipped in milk and rolled over a bed of frying flour. Then it's quickly fried. It's very crispy outside and the fruit stay fresh inside.
In a group of people, a vegetable-based mushroom hotpot is a great choice. The cooking stock can be made from simmering white turnip, apples, corn, sugarcane and cabbage for a few hours. Then rinse the stock over a sieve, add spices and serve in a hotpot with many vegetables, including different kinds of mushrooms.
I believe Vietnamese cuisine has five natural colours: black, white, yellow, green and red. They are elements that represent the universe. The combination of five tastes, sour, spicy, sweet, salty and bitter, reflect life by themselves. I believe Vietnamese is the cuisine that's best suited to bring people healthy bodies and joyful spirits. — VNS