There is a time for everything,
And a season for every activity under heaven.
There was a time in Viet Nam when country dishes couldn’t be found on respectable restaurant menus in urban centres.
But this is no longer true.
In fact, many restaurants are cashing in on Vietnamese looking to get a little old fashioned cooking known as đặc or specialties.
Originally, the term was used to denote particular dishes or products from specific regions according to the Dao Duy Anh Vietnamese Dictionary. One could call cinnamon grown in Thanh Hoa Province, oranges native to Vinh, glutinous griddle-cakes prepared in Quan Ganh or even shrimp paste produced in Hue dac san.
Using this term in a restaurant is a recent trend, if I’m not mistaken. At least I don’t remember roast duck, the pride of Tu Hung Lau Restaurant, being called a speciality 50 years ago. Neither was the incomparable pho served along Bronze Street or the delectable stuffed pancakes available only on Cathedral Street.
According to my history books, the new meaning of dac san was imparted during a time of social change in the north when people could only get food from ration centres run by the State.
In the wake of doi moi, renewal process, adopted by Viet Nam in 1986. life began to improve and eateries opened up everywhere.
Northerners could now eat and drink to their hearts content, as their southern brethren were wont. It was then, during this time of celebration and abundance, that traditional dishes, known as dac san, made their way into modem restaurants.
First to hit the menu were spring rolls, imperial pate and bird’s nest soup. Next came steak using imported Australian beef, pizza, Russian salads, Cantonese noodles and other international specialties once only available to a few, well-off folk.
Chefs and cooks began to mix ingredients that had never been combined before. Spring rolls could now be served with mustard instead of the traditional nuoc mam, fish sauce. Pho, a dish that used to be unique to each street comer became standardised.
"It’s stupid to pay triple for a bowl of industrialised pho" complained a friend from Berlin who came for a visit.
In a time of plenty, the coming of country foods is a welcome sign because of their hearty flavours that are devoid of fast food and western influences.
Plain, simple dishes farmers consume daily are now advertised as specialties. One can sample rice, boiled or picked vegetables, fish, shrimp, paddy crabs, clams or mussels just about anywhere.
Rice, cooked in a small clay pot, retains all its natural flavour and the slightly burned layer at the bottom is quite tasty because of its crispiness.
One restaurant offers a side dish consisting of butter-fried paddy crabs a long with banh da, roast pancakes. Another favourite dish for Hanoians is boiled cabbage seasoned with a pasty mixture of fish sauce and duck eggs. This, accompanied by nom, assorted bitter-sweet vegetables and banana flowers, is pleasing for even the most difficult palate.
Given time, these popular dishes from humble roots may someday be included in foreign dictionaries just as pho, nom and nuoc mam already are and be identified with Vietnamese culture everywhere.