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Rice Talks: Food and Community in a Vietnamese Town

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Rice Talks explores the importance of cooking and eating in the everyday social life of Hoi An, a properous market town in central Vietnam known for its exceptionally elaborate and sophisticated local cuisine. In a vivid and highly personal account, Nir Avieli takes the reader from the private setting of the extended family meal into the public realm of the festive, extraordinary, and unique. He shows how foodways relate to class relations, gender roles, religious practices, cosmology, ethnicity, and even local and national politics. This evocative study departs from conventional anthropological research on food by stressing the rich meanings, generative capacities, and potential subversion embedded in foodways and eating.

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1 Deciphering the Hoianese Meal

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1    Deciphering the Hoianese Meal

It was 11:30 am and Quynh said that lunch was ready. We sat on wooden stools around the circular table: Quynh, her husband Anh, his mother, sister, Irit (my wife), and I. The dishes were already on the table: a small plate with three or four small fish in a watery red gravy seasoned with fresh coriander, a bowl of morning-glory soup (canh rau muong) with a few dried shrimp, and a mixed plate of lettuce and herbs. There was also a bowl of nuoc mam cham (fish sauce diluted with water and lime juice, seasoned with sugar, fresh ginger, and chili). An electric rice-cooker stood on a stool by the table. We each had a ceramic bowl and a pair of ivory-colored plastic chopsticks.

Anh’s mother sat next to the rice cooker, and as we handed her our rice bowls in turn, she filled them to the brim with steaming rice with a flat plastic serving spoon. I asked Quynh what we were going to eat. Quynh pointed at the dishes: “com [steamed rice], rau [(fresh)] greens], canh [soup], kho [‘dry,’ indicating the fish].” Then she pointed to the bowl of fish sauce, adding “and nuoc mam.

 

2 The Social Dynamics of the Home Meal

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2    The Social Dynamics of the Home Meal

In this second chapter on the Hoianese home meal, I expand my analysis in two directions: the first deals with the dynamics of the home-eaten meal, stressing its flexibility, variety, and ability to encompass change; the second sets the ground for the discussion of the interrelations between foodways and other social and cultural practices. I first classify the culinary process into stages, examining how each stage reflects, maintains and, at times, defines intra-family roles, statuses, and hierarchies. Specifically, I examine the conventional view of women as having a lower status, which appears to be in keeping with their identification with the low-status kitchen and cooking. An analysis of the changing roles of Hoianese women with regard to the culinary sphere at home reveals a much more nuanced and dynamic picture, however. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the tensions between the individual and the collective, as they materialize around the Hoianese table, emphasizing elements of social competition and conflict, which are essential though implicit aspects of the Hoianese meal.

 

3 Local Specialties, Local Identity

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3    Local Specialties, Local Identity

Whenever asked by a Hoianese what exactly I was doing in Hoi An, I would answer that I was studying the town’s eating and drinking culture (van hoa am thuc Hoi An). The common response would be: “Ah, have you had cao lau yet?” For most Hoianese, researching the food in their town meant exploring their local specialties (dac san Hoi An), among which cao lau, a unique noodle dish, is the most prominent.

A book about these local specialties, titled Van Hoa Am Thuc O Pho Co Hoi An (The Culinary Culture of Ancient Hoi An), was published by Hoi An’s municipal research center, stirring some controversy (Tran 2000). Local critics argued that many of the thirty dishes listed were neither unique to Hoi An, nor to Quang Nam Province—and some were not even unique to central Vietnam. There were also debates over dish names, food terms, and even modes of preparation. Yet what I found most intriguing about The Culinary Culture of Ancient Hoi An was that a relatively small town could boast more than thirty local specialties. I later realized that some dishes are considered unique not merely to the district or town but to specific villages (e.g., banh dap Cam Nam [“Cam Nam broken crackers”] or mi quang Cam Chau [“Quang Nam Province noodles in Cam Chau village style”]). Some of the dishes described as unique to Hoi An can in fact be found in other places, where locals are quick to dismiss Hoi An’s claim for exclusivity.

 

4 Feasting with the Dead and the Living

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4    Feasting with the Dead and the Living

Though rituals and festivals have always been at the center of anthropological attention, the special food, elaborate preparations, and eating practices characteristic of such events have often been ignored in anthropological writing or, at best, have been treated as anecdotal or trivial.1 Even Shaun Malarney’s (2001) analysis of war-dead commemorations in Vietnam, which includes detailed descriptions of the ritual and its wartime and postwar transformations, has no more than: “… and then [the mourners] share a communal meal …” (ibid. 68). I argue that the culinary aspects of such ceremonies are at least as meaningful and important as the formal ritual. The analysis of foodways in such events actually sheds light on issues that are often overlooked.

Ancestor-worship ceremonies (dam gio, “death anniversary gatherings,” sometimes referred to as cung ong ba, or literally “worship of grandfather and grandmother”) are the most common family rituals held in Hoi An. As every person has two parents and four grandparents (in some cases even more since, prior to 1975, polygamy was legal and there are several polygamous families in town), most Hoianese conduct or participate in several dam gio rituals annually. While some families worship more than two generations of ancestors (see also Jamieson 1995: 22), this is quite rare in Hoi An. In practice, most Hoianese worship only those ancestors whom they personally knew, while long-deceased ancestors are usually remembered only in more general ancestor-worship events, such as Tet, if at all. Since extended family members, friends, and neighbors are routinely invited to join these rituals, most people participate in well over a dozen such events each year. Indeed, most other Hoianese rituals and festivals include some aspects of ancestor worship. As one of my informants pointed out: “… they say that we are Buddhists or Taoists, but for me, I think that we are ancestor worshipers. This is what we mostly do.”

 

5 Wedding Feasts: From Culinary Scenarios to Gastro-anomie

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5    Wedding Feasts

FROM CULINARY SCENARIOS TO GASTRO-ANOMIE

Weddings are the single most important event in Hoianese lives. Complex affairs lasting several days, they involve a huge expenditure of time, effort, and money, in a series of ceremonies that fundamentally alter the social positions of the bride and groom as well as their extended families. Food has an extremely important role and each and every ceremonial stage of a Hoianese marriage is marked by some kind of feast—indeed, guests are literally invited to “eat the wedding” (an cuoi).

Following a brief discussion of “traditional” Vietnamese weddings, this chapter is organized according to the chronological stages of a contemporary Hoianese wedding, but the ceremonies and feasts described belong to separate weddings in different social contexts. Thus, while the sequence in which wedding ceremonies develop from one stage to the next is maintained, there are intra-stage comparisons that stress the prominence of the Hoianese culinary scenario, while modifications that were made to this culinary script under particular social circumstances are singled out for discussion.

 

6 Food and Identity in Community Festivals

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6    Food and Identity in Community Festivals

Community festivals in Hoi An are celebrated by social groups larger than the household (nha) or the extended family (gia dinh), but the actual number of the participants does not exceed several hundred. Participants in community festivals know each other personally, at least to a certain extent.

I have opted to present four feasts that represent the wide range of communities in town: the meal served at the Tran clan ancestor worship ceremony, the Protestant church’s Christmas picnic, the Cao Dai annual communal feast, and the banquet prepared for the Phuoc Kien Chinese community festival. Just as in life-cycle events, community festivals consist of two parts: a formal, ritual stage and a feast. Here too, much of the preparation, effort, cost, and time are invested in the festive meal.

While the eating arrangements at community festivals are remarkably similar to those defined by the family-oriented “festive culinary scenario,” the dishes and menus are diverse, with each communal meal featuring a specific set of dishes that distinguishes it from the others and imbues it with particular meanings. The menus and dishes mainly concern the collective identity of each community, or, rather, the complex, multileveled and often contradictory identity of each group, as well as their positioning within Hoi An, the nation, and beyond.

 

7 Rice Cakes and Candied Oranges: Culinary Symbolism in the Big Vietnamese Festivals

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7    Rice Cakes and Candied Oranges

CULINARY SYMBOLISM IN THE BIG VIETNAMESE FESTIVALS

This chapter analyzes the special dishes prepared for the three most prominent festivals in Hoi An: Tet Nguyen Dan (Vietnamese New Year, henceforth, Tet), Tet Doan Ngo (Summer Festival), and Tet Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn Festival).1 The difference between the festive dishes examined so far and the ones I present below lies in the fact that the latter are consumed simultaneously by huge numbers of people—sometimes by most of the nearly one hundred million people in the country and beyond who consider themselves Vietnamese. Thus, the meanings of these festive dishes concern not only the Hoianese but, in some instances, the entire Vietnamese nation, within and beyond the country’s borders. These iconic dishes are Vietnamese “key symbols” (Ortner 1973) that are “the most important means by which the members of a group represent themselves to themselves …” (Solomon 1993: 117).

The dishes discussed in this chapter are key symbols also because they appear in multiple cultural contexts: their origins are the stuff of legends; they are prepared for domestic and commercial consumption; they are presented as offerings as well as eaten at various food events; and last but not least, they are often mentioned by the Hoianese. Following Solomon’s analysis of key symbols (1993: 120), these iconic dishes are not mere representations of the main features of being Hoianese/Vietnamese. They also offer nuanced insights into the meanings that the Hoianese/Vietnamese attribute to themselves, and delineate differentiation as much as solidarity. Indeed, these iconic culinary artifacts express localized and contemporary ideas that go well beyond their explicit depiction of the Grand National Narrative.

 

Conclusion: Food and Culture—Interconnections

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FOOD AND CULTURE—INTERCONNECTIONS

I began my research in Hoi An thinking that the local foodways would merely reflect the existing social order and cultural arrangements, but my fieldwork frequently demonstrated that, on the contrary, the culinary sphere was not a passive mirror image of other social and cultural realms but, rather, an arena of cultural production itself.

A good example of the challenges to my early theoretical assumptions brought about by fieldwork observations would be the various modifications to the script of the Hoianese festive culinary scenario. While this scenario clearly reflects the prevailing social order and cultural conventions, the meaning of significant changes to that script—such as the addition of expensive seafood, or the buffet-style wedding feast—had to be more complex.

To engender a more accurate and sensitive analysis of the culinary events I witnessed in Hoi An, I turned to Handelman’s (1998) scheme of “Models, Mirrors and Re-presentations,” which better accommodates contradictions and incongruities such as the ones described above.

 

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