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The Unifying Presence of Cái Mâm, Vietnam’s Ubiquitous, Familial Food Tray

An authentic Vietnamese meal cannot be complete without cái mâm.

Mâm, a humble, circular food tray, has conducted generations of Vietnamese into a familial ritual for centuries. Once a mâm is set as the centerpiece, knees begin touching knees until the whole family sits cross-legged in a circle. One person pairs up chopsticks from the bundle and distributes them to fellow diners, while another scoops rice into bowls.

It was first created using wood, usually from jackfruit trees. According to Tuoi Tre, former versions were painted crimson and featured intricate patterns to display wealth. At the dawn of the Bronze Age, a new, more durable version appeared, only to be replaced centuries later by its contemporary, aluminum cousin.

Some ethnic minorities utilize other eco-friendly materials for their mâm. In certain areas of northern Vietnam and along the nation’s central coast, men from Thai minorities take pride in the woven cane trays they create, which can last for up to 20 years. During special feasts, Muong minorities line their mâm with lightly scorched banana leaves and arrange regional specialties on leaves to form a colorful platter.

A 1960 silk painting by Nguyen Phan Chanh. Photo via designs.vn.

Mâm is, therefore, a lens through which one can capture how Vietnamese people eat every day. A minimal checklist includes a serving of seasonal vegetables, a protein dish and a bowl of soup. Each mâm is a round of culinary delights orbiting around a spicy bowl of fish sauce. Indeed, what would a summer meal be without sautéed morning glory, or a winter feast without braised catfish?

The intuitive design of mâm explains its timeless utility. A round tray adorned with food becomes an instant focus for hungry eyes. Its magnetic presence attracts diners around its rim. The round tray has no prominent spot, thus it establishes seating arrangements of unrivaled equality. Diners, regardless of status or age, enter an intimate circle to share stories over plates of food. And yet it is, after all, merely a simple tray for carrying food to and from the kitchen to the dining area.

Now in his 60s, my father believes the communal aspect of mâm grew out of Vietnamese rice-farming culture. After working from cockcrow until noon, his parents and their nine children sustained themselves with only two boiled eggs, some diluted fish sauce and wild greens. He reminisced: “It was fulfilling somehow. We shared whatever was there on the plate.”

Table manners surrounding mâm weave daily interactions into a rhythm. The young show respect to elderly family members, who lightly nod in return. If someone seems too far from any dish, an observant relative will pass chopstick-held food across the mâm. If someone is late for dinner, their portion of food is reserved in a covered dish.

An illustration of a mâm plate adorned with sticky rice cakes, pickles, pork sausage, braised pork belly and stuffed bitter melon. Illustration by Phan Phuong.

Like a timepiece without hands, mâm rings a bell of reunion. Its routine presence rushes workers out of offices, out of phone calls, and away from life’s daily hustle to take up their spot in the circle. It would only taste like Tết, however, if everyone makes it in time for the midnight meal.

The connective duty of mâm extends beyond quotidian family tables. Mounted with engagement gifts, mâm turns strangers into in-laws. When resting upon altars, mâm represents an outstretched hand to ancestors.

Yet while mâm is a mediator, it can also act as a form of segregation. Festive gatherings in rural areas still divide mâm trên, a higher rank, from lesser mâm dưới. Only when elders and men in the mâm trên group finish drinking and dining can the women and children in mâm dưới leave the gathering and start washing dishes.

A family of three generations having dinner. Photo by Trang Six.

In urban households, a generational rift manifests itself over mâm. My sister, a sophomore student, says home life stresses her out, and that street food meals are simply more exciting. Her obvious preference is to eat out with friends. This lifestyle choice of my sister and her generation questions the continued relevance of family gatherings.

In public spaces, some are finding ways to reconcile with this new cultural milieu. Modern Vietnamese restaurant owners serve food on mâm as it opens doors for business partners to enter a circle of trust, or for travelers to taste a sample of ‘genuine’ Vietnam in communal homestay dinners.

Across endless decades, mâm has satisfied generations of hungry souls. Bridging relationships one meal at a time, mâm whispers that we are all connected. In this circle of life, we are all a part of something greater than ourselves.

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