Home Culture Traditional Table: A Vietnamese Food Primer

Traditional Table: A Vietnamese Food Primer

by Kaz Weida
A primer on Vietnamese food

Cơm gà Hải Nam: A Vietnamese Classic

Hainanese Chicken Rice Bowl - Dig in!

Cơm gà Hải Nam, or Hainanese chicken rice originates from the Hainan Province in China, but is popular throughout Thailand and Vietnam. It starts with a modestly poached chicken in a simple, fragrant broth of onions, garlic, and ginger. It simmers and soaks up the flavor of the broth for the better part of an hour.

For the chicken:
1 whole chicken
1 onion, peeled and halved
4-5 garlic cloves, crushed
Large piece of ginger, peeled and crushed

For the rice:
1 cup of jasmine rice
1-2 Tbsp finely minced ginger
1 cup broth from chicken

For the nước mắm gừng (ginger fish sauce):
1/4 cup lime juice
1-2 Tbsp sugar
2-3 Tbsp fish sauce
2-3 Tbsp ginger, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 bird’s eye chili, finely minced
5-6 kaffir lime leaves, julienned
Coriander leaves
Bunch of cilantro

Directions: Rinse the whole chicken and pat it dry. Put it in a stockpot along with the onion, garlic, shallot, and ginger. Fill with water and boil up to one hour until chicken is cooked and firm but not falling apart.

The broth for the chicken will be used for the rice later.

Rinse the rice until the water runs clear and most of the starch has been removed. Let dry in a colander. Saute the rice in a skillet on the stove with the minced ginger until the grains become slightly brown and the ginger is fragrant. Cook the rice in a rice cooker with one cup of broth from the boiled chicken.

Rinsing the jasmine rice creates a stickier, plumper grain.

Mix together ingredients for the ginger fish dipping sauce, shaking in a closed jar to even disperse the sugar. Keep 1-2 weeks in your refrigerator and use as needed. Ul apart or cut the chicken. Sprinkle with kaffir lime leaves. Serve with ginger rice, dipping sauce, and herbs.

Eat. Smell. Savor.

Hainanese chicken rice dish ready to be enjoyed.

About Vietnamese Cuisine

Vietnamese cuisine has become increasingly popular across the world for two things: phở (fuh), a rice noodle soup, and bánh mì (bahn mee), a baguette sandwich packed with meat and pickled veggies. But Vietnamese food is about much more than these two dishes. The cuisine of Vietnam focuses on engaging the senses through food, where fragrant herbs and sauces take center stage.

Home cooks in Vietnam strive to find balance on their dinner table based on five flavors that correspond to elements: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth). Vietnamese cooks use a combination of bright colored vegetables, spices, and proteins to create a yin and yang approach to every mouthful.

The backbone of most traditional tables in Vietnam is rice. It’s quite common in the villages for peasants and rice farmers to eat cơm tấm (cughm tum)or “broken rice,” because the inferior grains are separated and consumed at home instead of sold. Many Vietnamese live close to extended family that gather for meals at large tables, serving themselves meat, vegetables, and herbs out of communal plates. There is a dedication to creating the perfect mouthful by dipping each bite into a small dish of savory sauce before scooping it up with plump, slightly sticky grains of rice.

On a traditional table in Vietnam, you’re likely to find some combination of the following food offered.

  • Cơm tấm, or cơm (“Broken Rice”)
  • Thit (Meat- usually pork or chicken)
  • Thảo mộc (Herbs like coriander, kaffir leaves, and cilantro)
  • Mắm (Sauces based on fish, lime, and ginger)

While the traditional meat and rice dishes may seem quite simple, it’s the sauces and herbs that elevate flavors and make Vietnamese food a siren song for the senses.

Food, Family & The Fall of Saigon

Jennifer Ngo shares her love for Vietnamese food.
Jennifer Ngo recalls the traditional food from her childhood.

Jennifer Ngo has a very intimate relationship with the fragrance of Vietnamese food. She spends hours in the kitchen, conjuring up her mother’s recipes by smell. Jennifer’s dad was in the Navy, and her mother was from a village in rural Vietnam. She and her family fled the fall of Saigon in April of 1975 and were packed onto the USS Midway along with thousands of other Vietnamese refugees.

Jennifer, who was three at the time, doesn’t remember much about the evacuation. But she still has the portraits that used to hang in their family home, photos her father insisted be taken of each of the children right before they left Vietnam.

“He had written on there our names and our birth dates and then, on the back, the names of the rest of the family. We carried our own pictures and he stuffed the frames with money because we could have been separated and he wanted us to know who we were and know who our family was. And he hoped that whoever found us would take care of us.”

They stayed briefly in Guam and then arrived stateside at Camp Pendleton, where a Lutheran pastor sponsored Jennifer’s family. He helped them find jobs, learn English, and assimilate into American culture. Jennifer says she’s glad she still speaks Vietnamese but wishes she’d paid closer attention to other parts of her heritage.

“My brothers and I wanted so much to fit in. And now, I’m glad I retained something. I regretfully think I should have listened more to my dad because he kept saying, don’t lose the language. Don’t lose the heritage or one day you’ll be sorry. At that time I thought I will NOT be sorry and now I’m sorry that I don’t know more than I do. He was absolutely right.”

Jennifer says one of her biggest regrets is not having her mother’s traditional Vietnamese recipes. She inherited a manilla folder full of handwritten notes but was heartbroken when it was lost. Jennifer has spent years trying to carefully construct the dishes she enjoyed as a child, navigating by smell to recreate the humble dishes she remembers.

Cơm gà Hải Nam: A Vietnamese Classic

LISTEN: How to pronounce Cơm gà Hải Nam in Vietnamese.

One of those dishes is Cơm gà Hải Nam, or Hainanese chicken rice (recipe available above). It originates from the Hainan Province in China but is popular throughout Thailand and Vietnam. It starts with a modestly poached chicken in a simple, fragrant broth of onions, garlic, and ginger. It simmers and soaks up the flavor of the broth for the better part of an hour.

The rice that accompanies Hainanese chicken in this recipe is just jasmine, but it’s rinsed thoroughly to remove the starch and create a stickier, plumper grain. The rice, sauteed in ginger and garlic, then cooks with broth from the poached chicken and is served with heaps of fresh herbs and a ginger fish sauce.

Most of the ingredients for this traditional Vietnamese dish can be found at your local grocery store, but a few herbs like coriander and kaffir leaves may necessitate a special trip to an Asian market. Enjoy this fragrant Vietnamese dish and, if your house smells a bit too much like fish sauce, Jennifer has one final insider tip for you. Boil a little water and vinegar on your stove to combat pungent smells and return balance to your senses.

Ready to move from authentic cuisine to real conversations?

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