Since ancient times, rice has been the most important food in Vietnam, which makes Vietnamese family meals distinct from other countries. People here eat rice more than any other food. Thus we usually say that “three rice meals per day” (một ngày ba bữa cơm) than “three meals a day” as Westerners do. Originating from wet rice civilizations, the plainsmen eat ordinary rice while highlanders eat more glutinous or sticky rice.
Rice meals usually consist of three main dishes: a salty dish (fish, meat or egg), vegetables (raw, boiled or fried) and soup (fish, meat or vegetable). Fish sauce (nước mắm), made of fish and salt, is a must in any Vietnamese meal. There is also soya sauce and shrimp paste, depending on the food. A daily meal does not always contain fish or meat but there is always sauce, vegetables and soup.
Traditionally Vietnamese families dine together with their guests. People aren’t served individually. Instead, the food is placed in the center of the table with the bowl of rice.
It is an old Vietnamese saying that the formal greeting is much more important than the food (Lời chào cao hơn mâm cỗ). This means there are important formalities before the family start to eat. The youngest person in the family first invites the elders to eat. “I invite my grandparents to eat; I invite my parents to eat and I invite my brothers to eat”. In the past he/she also served them their food in a show of respect, but these days the invitation is enough. The elders in turn them invite the youngster to eat by saying “Please serve yourself”.
In the modern family, however, everyone cannot gather for the family meal because life is so much b