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

Nir Avieli Indiana University Press ePub

7    Rice Cakes and Candied Oranges


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.

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