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Chè, Bánh, Chả, Nem: The Curious Lives of Vietnam’s Regional Food Names

Realizing the word that one is using refers to an entirely different object in another region is a situation many can relate to. The last time this happened to me, it almost cost me a bowl of Hanoi’s bánh đa trộn.

It’s impossible to explain why certain dishes have the names they do given the sometimes arbitrary, untraceable nature of language. This impossibility doesn’t mean that wondering about them is a pointless activity. Indeed, one shouldn’t resist the head-scratching nature of different dish names that the written language fails to distinguish, including food names that takes on different lives, taste and appearance when they cross regions. These questions always result in more traces, possibilities and questions about the past, and if one is lucky, unexpected discoveries along the way.

Chả and Nem

Chả is made from a mixture of fish flakes, vegetables, herbs and spices that are pulverized together and then quết (pressed and folded into a paste) until the final product is elastic and gummy. The paste is then put in boiling oil, which allows fat to infiltrate the meat and enhance its flavor while browning the skin. Just like the alluring smoke wafting off grilled cơm tấm meat, it’s hard to ignore the pleasing fragrance of shallots, herbs and fish that emanates from a bánh mì stall frying chả cá.

While someone from the southern and central parts of the country might be familiar with this version of chả cá, it refers to a completely different dish in Hanoi, though still with fish as the main ingredient. Making chả cá in a Hanoi eatery involves no grounding or quết. Instead, fresh fish is cut into cubes and marinated in a mixture of ground riềng (galangal), mẻ (fermented rice), pepper, turmeric, shallots and shrimp paste and then cooked on a charcoal grill before being pan-fried with a generous amount of dill and spring onions.

This is not to say that the ground fish form of chả cá doesn’t exist in northern locales such as Hanoi. Chả cốm, for example, consists of a mixture of cốm (flatten young rice kernel), mọc (pulverized pork meat quết into a paste) and lean pork, shaped into a round disc and fried. Ha Long also has chả mực, made using a similar method as the southern chả cá but with squid as the main protein.

Hanoian’s chả cá, also known as chả cá Lã Vọng.

How to quết your chả.

The world of chả can be roughly divided into four domains: grilled or fried fresh meat, such as in the cases of bún chả or Hanoi’s chả cá, which is more commonly seen in northern provinces. This linguistic use is rare in southern and central cuisines. Meat mixed with spices and aromatics in a well-kneaded paste and sometimes fried seems to be the most ubiquitous use of the word in these regions. Examples include chả cá thác lác (southern-style fish cake with thác lác fish), chả lụa (a pulverized meat mixture made with the quết technique), and central Vietnamese chả bò (an identical dish to chả lụa but made with beef). The third grouping includes fried spring rolls like chả giò, common in southern and central cuisines. Meat or fish patties such as chả cá mòi (fish patties made with sardines) and chả rươi (patties made with mealworm and eggs) are more common in the north.

Examining Han-Nom characters provides a possible explanation for why chả has so many different linguistic uses. Anthony Tran Van Kiem’s Nom and Sino-Vietnamese dictionary and the dictionary published by the Nom Preservation Foundation list six Han-Nom characters that translate to chả.

The first character, 鮓 in its traditional form and 鲊 in its standard form, is romanized as zhǎ. The word refers to salted, preserved fish, or a dish made with ground vegetables, flour and other condiments. Interestingly, in Chinese provinces like Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi, 鮓 (zhǎ) refers to a method of pickling vegetables and meat with rice flour or flour.

These dictionaries provide no information regarding two terms. 鮺 and 𫆢 don’t have Mandarin equivalents because they are pure Nom words that were introduced during the later stages of Nom language development, when the writing system broke away from Han traditions.

Another character that piques interest is 炙 (zhì), which, according to Nguyen Quang Hong’s Nôm Characters with Quotations and Annotations, has three Vietnamese readings, including chá, chả and chạ. Chá refers to grilled or fried seasoned meat or fish. Chả however, is a term of negation (i.e. don’t) in Vietnamese. Another exclusively Nom word with an identical meaning to 炙 (zhì), a definition of the frying and grilling method, is 𤌄, pronounced as chả.

A little more digging reveals a fascinating link between zhì and the common Vietnamese phrase khoái chá, which describes the feeling of really liking something. The term, according to Vietnamese scholar An Chi, is rooted in the phrase quái chá, an abbreviated Vietnamese reading of an old Chinese metaphor 脍炙人口 (pinyin: kuài zhì rén kǒu; Vietnamese: khoái chá nhân khẩu). In Mandarin usage, 脍 (kuài) refers to thinly raw sliced meat, while 炙 (zhì) refers to grilled meat and 人口 (rén kǒu) is a person’s mouth. When put together, the phrase refers to the ecstatic joy of consuming a kuài or zhì dish, but it is often used as a metaphor to describe something popular, especially a poem or a work of literature that pleases people they way these meat dishes do.

A look inside Technique du People Annam provides insight about another character. The book, published in 1909, is a collection of drawings and text describing the activities and culture of Hanoi, written in both pure Nom and Han characters. Its Vietnamese translation for bún chả corresponds to two exclusively Nom characters. The first one, placed on top, is the written word for bún, and the bottom for chả. While the first character is recorded in the dictionary, the second is nowhere to be found. One can see its resemblance to 詐 (zhà), which means to cheat or pretend in Mandarin.

Bún chả in Technique du People Annam.

Overall, the Han and Nom characters associated with chả sometimes refer to a piece of meat itself, or the grilling, frying or grounding methods involved in its preparation. Chả, when used in modern Vietnamese, seems to fit under one of these two broad, flexible umbrellas.

This leads us to another common word, nem, which is often paired with chả in various idioms, including the famous saying “nem công chả phượng,” which describes a Hue royal dish commonly served to kings and elites in feudal times. The saying is sometimes used as a metaphor for a fancy feast, or fanciness in general. Công translates to peacock and phượng translates to phoenix, but the dish’s precise historic ingredients are unknown. The majority of modern interpretations rely on different definitions of nem and chả and rely on visual representations of the phoenix and the peacock.

Interpretations of nem công chả phượng. Photo via Huong Nghiep A Au (top) and Bepanvanphong (bottom).

Ton Nu Thi Ha, a descendant of mandarin wives in the Nguyen royal court, suggests that the nem part of the dish is made with peafowl meat, spices and sugar and left to ferment for three days, while the chả is made with pheasant meat, ground with herbs and spices, quết and wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Whatever the original dish, nem công chả phượng will look different depending on which meaning of nem and chả one uses. One can find spring rolls, sour nem and different types of sausage on a tray of nem công chả phượng in someone’s home or an online recipe.

Nem is most ubiquitously understood as a type of fermented sausage that uses lean pork, spices and rice wrapped in either guava or gooseberry leaves with garlic and chili and then further wrapped in banana leaves. This tight wrap produces an anaerobic environment that enhance the growth of lactic acid bacteria, which feed on the rice, contributing to the dish’s iconic sour taste and helping to prevent salmonella.. While people in the south and central regions simply use the word nem for this dish, northerners opt for the term nem chua.

This fermented sausage is popular in neighboring countries too. One can recognize it and its Vietnamese name in Thai (naem or nham), Laotian (naem moo or som moo) and Cambodian (nam) cuisines.

Nem enjoys another meaning in northern provinces. There, it describes fried spring rolls, which southerners often call chả giò and central regions, with the exception of Thanh Hoa Province, call ram. Although similar in essence, not all chả giò or nem within the same region are the same, with versions varying in their types of fillings and wrappers. Rice flour wrappers are more common in the north and central regions, while southerners are more familiar with wheat flour based wrap or rế, net wrappers. Interestingly, the fresh version of spring rolls are called nem cuốn (rolled nem) in Hanoi, while southerners are more familiar with gỏi cuốn.

When placed before other words, nem invites even more meanings. For example, nem chạo or nem thính is a dish that uses pork ear mixed with ground, roasted rice, similar to in Saigon.

The chả and nem pair also exist in the common saying ông ăn chả bà ăn nem (the husband eats chả, the wife eats nem), in which they are used as metaphors for an illicit female mistress and an illicit male lover, respectively. The metaphorical connotation of chả and nem here suggests there is some sort of commonality between the two, despite them often being placed in oppositional spaces.

Chè and Bánh

Food used as metaphors can be found in a lot of Vietnamese literature and folk sayings. Translations of Ho Xuan Huong’s most famous Nom poem, ‘Banh Troi Nuoc,’ for example, reveal different names used for Vietnam’s beloved sweet sticky rice dumplings.

Banh Troi Nuoc in 1914’s woodblock edition.

Bánh Trôi Nước (The Floating Cake)

Thân em vừa trắng lại vừa tròn (My body is both white and round)

Bảy nổi ba chìm với nước non (In water I now swim, now sink)

Rắn nát mặc dầu tay kẻ nặn (The hand that kneads me may be rough)

Mà em vẫn giữ tấm lòng son (I still shall keep my true-red heart)

English translation by Huynh Sanh Thong.

Once again, different names for the dish and the different regional variations emerge. Bánh trôi nước doesn’t exist in Saigon. Rather, the dessert that the poem seems to be describing resembles chè trôi nước, a dish consisting of glutinous rice balls with mung bean filling, coconut milk and sugar syrup simmered in ginger.

Chè trôi nước. Photo via YouTube account Vanh Khuyen Le.

Bánh might be the most all-encompassing word used in Vietnamese food. It can refer to savory or sweet treats of different sizes and shapes. Bánh phở is a rice noodle, bánh cuốn is a flat rice noodle sheet with fillings, bánh bao is a bun, bánh giò and bánh ú are triangle-shaped rice dumpling, bánh mì is a baguette, bánh đa can either be a noodle or a rice cracker depending on regional dialect, bánh tráng is the catch-all term for wrappers and crackers, bánh ngọt is an umbrella term for sweets made from wheat flour, bánh tôm is shrimp fried in batter, bánh xèo is a thin crepe, bánh đậu xanh is made from mung bean paste, bánh gan and bánh flan are made with an egg custard base and don’t even have flour as the main ingredient.

Bánh is fascinatingly flexible and often combined with a word that describes a cooking method, an ingredient, an appearance or a sound. The word originates from 餅 (bǐng) in Mandarin, which is a common term for many Chinese flatbreads, pancakes and objects that have a round, flat appearance. This association with shape extends to Vietnamese, as tires and steering wheels are called bánh xe and bánh lái, respectively.

Bánh in Vietnamese is even more all-encompassing, as it also includes foods that are mainly made from flour, powders and legume-based pastes in various shapes. The term also has a similar pronunciation in different languages, such as Lao’s pǣng, which means flour or powder, and Thai’s bpɛ̂ɛng, which also refers to flour or starch, with the addition of ground meat. Khmer’s bañ has two meanings; one shares the same proto-Mon-Khmer root with Vietnamese’s bắn, which is to shoot; the second means cake or pastry. In countries with a language tradition closer to Chinese, like South Korea and Japanese, byeong and mochi are the readings for the hangul and kanji version of the character.

Similar to bánh, chè is also a common term used for some beloved soupy desserts. In northern provinces, chè standing on its own also refers to tea, which is more typically called trà in the south. While it is common knowledge that tea etymologies are similar across countries, how Vietnamese chè took on another cluster of meanings is a mystery. Perhaps it’s because both the dessert and beverage are liquids. Or, perhaps it has roots in an entirely different language, such as Khmer.

As if the matter isn’t already complicated enough, two Hanoian snacks defy common associations for chè: chè lam and chè kho. Chè lam is made with sticky rice flour and molasses with peanuts, while chè kho is made of ground mung beans that are steamed, sautéed and shaped into a round loaf. A similar version of chè kho in central and southern regions is called bánh đậu xanh tươi.

Chè lam. Photo via Eva.

Chè kho. Photo via Lao Dong Thu Do.

Ho Xuan Huong’s poem provides a different overlapping of categories. In it, she describes herself, and women in general, as sharing the fate of the sweet sticky rice dumpling. It floats and sinks within nước non, which refers both to water and country, and is at the mercy of the hands of those who shape it, yet still keeps a lòng son, (literally, red heart; figuratively, loyal heart).

When people in the south read the poem, many assume that Ho Xuan Huong is referring to the sticky rice ball floating in syrup in a bowl of chè trôi nước. Imagining she is actually describing a different, northern dish allows for an interpretation that reveals an even greater brilliance.

It is more likely that the poet is referring to bánh trôi, a slightly different dessert. In the 1914 woodcut version of the poem, the Nom title is translated to bánh trôi, without the nước. This dish involves several small sticky rice dumpling eaten with sesame seeds without sugar syrup. The filling doesn’t contain mung beans like chè trôi nước, but instead a cube of đường phên (a type of reddish-brown rock sugar made of sugar cane molasses). Some sources suggest that lòng son is a play on words because the dumpling fillings share a color with an actual heart.

Bánh trôi dumplings are boiled, and thus the floating and sinking that Ho Xuan Huong mentions could refer to the up-and-down movement of them during the cooking process. In the 1914 version, she uses the character 㵢 for trôi, which means gliding and drifting, or sôi (boiling).

Another version of the poem published in Que Son Thi Tap gives the poem the name Lưu Thủy Bính, a synonym for bánh trôi. In Technique du People Annam the entry for bánh trôi also uses this name for the dish: 流水餅 (pinyin: liú shuǐ bǐng; Vietnamese: lưu thủy bính). Lưu means flow, stream, and together lưu thủy means flowing water.

Bánh trôi entry in the book. Note that the first and last characters are different because they are Nom writing variations liú and bǐng.

If one considers this definition involving flowing water, one can see a parallel in terms of movement with a practice performed during the Den Hat Mon festival, which commemorates the Trung sisters in Phu Tho, Hanoi. It was here that the sisters jumped to into a river, committing suicide after being defeated. Because the sisters were reported to have ordered rounds of bánh trôi before going into battle, it is prepared on the occasion and placed in 49 lotus flowers, which are released into the river. Is the poem also referencing the sisters?

Perhaps the metaphorical use of bánh trôi in Ho Xuan Huong’s poem also applies to the slippery relationship between language and food. It’s constantly renewing, changing, slipping, taking on new lives and colors with and against the currents of culture and history.

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