Today we get back to basic. Salt is the most used spice for any cuisine. It is incorporated in almost everyday meal, and it is not just for meal only. In fact, the uses for salt are limitless.
In this article I will cover the traditional Vietnamese uses for salt as in cultural tidbits so I may babble quite a bit about it. Bear with me will you? :D
Vietnam’s relationship with salt comes from its geography
The first use, of course, is the one in the kitchen, to taste. Salt is one of the most ancient spices that human uses, maybe because the vegetables seem tasteless after a meal of meat that is naturally salty. Vietnamese people use lots of salt in their dishes. And the level of saltiness in their cuisine is geographical. Vietnam is an S-shaped country with more than 3 000 km of coastline so its relationship with salt, especially sea salt, is as old as the country itself.
In the North the weather is hard and cruel, the winter is so cold and the summer so hot. Northerners have to work hard in this adverse climate which is not fit for growing lots of herbs and spices, and that means they have to eat lots of food to have energy and yet they have to save ingredients for when the weather turns bitterly hard and vegetables are scarce. So how do they balance those conflicting needs? They put in lots of salt in their dishes, mostly deep-fried food and braised/stew. It is believed that lots of salt keeps the body warm, and salty dishes mean you can’t eat a lot of food.
In the Centre, the weather is less bitter, and yet it’s where all the natural disasters happen: violent flood, raging storm, tornado, etc, every year, one after the other. The Centre is the narrowest territory with the sea at one side and mountains at the other. As a result, they can’t grow lots of vegetables and have to go to the sea to search for food: their dishes are mostly seafood. But how about when disasters happen? Living in adverse weather means you have to think for the days ahead. To solve parts of this dilemma, the people would marinate the seasonal seafood they can find with lots of salt and dry them beneath the sun. After days in the sun, the seafood become dried seafood that can be stored for months. And also, because living on ships for days is hard work, they also eat salty food to keep their body warm.
There is a difference between Northern saltiness and Centre saltiness though: unlike Northerners who eat salt in the form of flakes, Centre people eat the salt in seafood more than the spice itself: fish sauce, shrimp sauce/paste, small shrimp sauce, etc. Here is where they make the best fish sauce in Vietnam. Sadly the fish sauce I can find in France can’t even begin to cover the greatness of Vietnamese fish sauce. If you happen to visit Vietnam one day, do try and buy a bottle of fish sauce from the Centre because the taste is divine, the smell is equally so. But I digress, let’s get back to salt.
In the South, the weather is sweet, not at all adverse. There is only two seasons: the season of the sun :D and a rainy one. Here you’ll see many rivers, lakes, ponds from the great Mekong river, and so the soil is rich and generous. It’s where they grow most of the best herbs and vegetables and fruits of the country. And because of the abundance of herbs and spices (and lots of coconuts) which makes better life condition, they don’t season their dishes too salty. Instead, their dishes are quite sweet, just like the weather. In the far South, the dishes are rich and heavy from all that coconut milk and juice with its natural sweetness. Southerners also make all kind of fish sauces from the fishes that they can find in all those rivers and lakes (do you know they have a fish sauce for each kind of fish? Well I did tell you that Vietnamese people are a creative lot). Due to the sweet palate of Southerners, the fish sauces will be watered down by other herbs and spices so that in the end they can eat salty/sweet fish sauce.
Salt in Vietnamese cuisine
Not only Vietnamese people use salt for their dishes, they also use it to balance the sweetness and saltiness in food. Where there is a sweet dish, salt is there too. This principle of using a taste to elevate another roots deeply in the Asian cuisine wisdom. It is said that salty elevates sweet dishes and sweet neutralizes salty dishes. And so for every sweet ingredient, Vietnamese people always add a dash of salt to bring out its natural sweetness (like I did for the corn posts here). The next time you drink coconut juice, just add a pinch of salt to it. Your coconut juice will become richer and lovelier as the sweetness is more profound. Just don’t add too much salt though or your coconut juice will become coconut broth. In almost every Vietnamese dessert, you will find that they always use salt.
… And in homemade remedies
Salt is a great sterilizer, so it is also used a lot for natural remedies. Have a sore throat? Deep rinse your mouth and throat with salt water (a portion of salt is added to water) by gurgling it 3 to 5 times a day. Have a purple and blue spot on your body from clumsily bumping into sharp objects? Make a salt paste, lots of salt and a bit of water, and pack the spot with it, it will go away quickly. Got something toxic in your eye? Blink in salt water. When I was little, I spent lots of time at my grand parents’ home that it was practically my elementary school. I would get to see my grand-father put his feet in a big aluminum pot with warm salt water. My grand-father had chronic pain in the joints and the mixture lessened his pain. Next time that you walk too much and have painful feet when you get home, make warm salt water, find a comfortable spot on your sofa and submerge your feet in the mixture. You’ll quickly feel better. Find someone willing (or bribe them if you need to) to give you a feet massage and your feet will be back to normal by tomorrow. Of course the better quality of salt, the more effective it is going to be.
How about Feng Shui?
Salt in Vietnamese culture is also believed to ward off bad energy/spirits. As a country being coveted by the Chinese dynasties and their many conquests for a thousand years, it’s no wonder that the Vietnamese culture is greatly influenced by Chinese practices, one of them is Feng Shui. It is believed that sea salt is so pure that it can absorb bad energy around the house. Until around 30 years ago, people used to put a bowl of salt water in the corners of the house to ward off bad energy. Although this practice is seldom seen these days, salt is still used occasionally in ceremonies and celebrations to ward off bad spirits. Salt is also believed to bring luck to the family. At the New Year’s occasion, people usually buy salt hoping to bring good fortune to their home. This custom also has another meaning, the people buying salt at the New Year hope for a positive, meaningful year. In Vietnamese we have a word ‘đậm đà’ which in cuisine means flavorful, in relations it means deep and meaningful. And so just like adding salt can make a dish more flavorful, buying salt is to hope for great relationships, be it for family, friendship or romance.
Salt in Vietnamese culture has lots of meanings and uses. I wanted to but can’t cover them all here in this short article. To me salt is tied to many childhood memories. One day I may cover all its meanings and uses in the posts about Vietnamese traditions. Yes maybe.
Cover photo: Thao Uyen
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!