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History in a Tin: The Colonial Past of Vietnam Through Popular Canned Food

Whether it is fish placed neatly inside rectangular tins or uniform meat slabs stored in cylindrical cans with colorful packages, eating canned food is a strange experience. Unlike sitting in street food stalls or eating at home — where one can witness the food being made — the homogenizing, sanitized, mass-produced packages one mindlessly grabs from a supermarket counter obscure the labor that goes into the meal, as well as its origins.

Writing and narratives surrounding Vietnamese food often focus on foodstuffs deemed unique and representative of the culture, such as phở, spring rolls or bánh bèo, and hence their status of being unique to the culture serves as a culinary attraction in the eyes of foreigners and taps into a consumeristic desire to eat an imagined “other.”

Writer Elaine Castillo notes in "Colonialism in a Can," published by Taste, a similar impulse to include items such as purple yams, sticky rice and adobo in Filipino cuisine:

If you write an article about Filipino food, you’re almost obliged to mention things like banana leaves, purple yams, sticky rice, all of which are products I do eat weekly—I have no desire to minimize their importance in Filipino cuisine or their profound meaning in the lives of Filipinx eaters like me. But I also know that often the emphasis on those ingredients means imposing a particular view of Filipino cuisine whose primary purpose is to bring non-Filipino diners news from afar, fairytales from a far-off and fragrant place. But why not ask about canned sardines?

Castillo continues by arguing that following the traces of canned sardines can reveal the history of American imperialism in the Philippines, one aspect that is "less romantic" and "hits a little closer to home." Canned sardines in tomato sauce also exist in Vietnam — they lounge in bánh mì carts and piled upon each other in kitchen cabinets, together with Maggi soy sauce, luncheon meat, corned beef and canned pate. Their presence expected and their origins rarely questioned, they seem to magically exist through conveyor belts that brought them into our lives.

Canned Sardines and the Slippage of Whiteness

Walk by any bánh mì cart on a Saigon street and one should find stacks of red cylindrical cans of small fish in tomato sauce.

The most well-known brand of canned sardines (or mackerels) for a typical Saigonese might be Three Lady Cooks, a Thai brand belonging to the Royal Foods company. These cans are most commonly known as cá hộp Ba Cô Gái in Vietnamese. In the country, Three Lady Cooks was distributed through Thai Corp International, a company that entered the market in the late 1980s. However, canned sardines' arrival in Vietnam traces back to when the country was still a French colony.

While the inventor credited with the birth of canning technology in the early 1800s is a Frenchman, the technology didn't thrive in France, and canned food hadn't caught on among the French public by the time the country entered World War I. In the colonies, however, the attitude surrounding canned food was entirely different.

In her book Appetites and Aspirations, Erica J. Peters notes that canned and preserved food was the primary diet of French colonists in Vietnam. The French refused to eat local produce, showing their disdain for rice, fish sauce and street food. Contrary to stereotypical rationale such as health fear and sanitation, the French consumption of canned goods relied on the premise that these items constituted an invented “Frenchness,” while locally produced food symbolized the realm of the colonized subject.

This was not only true in Indochina, but also other European colonies in Africa, where European-imported canned foods and bottled alcoholic drinks were seen as a symbol of whiteness, while local produce was considered "non-white," as Diana Miryong Natermann points out in her book. Hence, in the effort to "otherize" themselves from the locals, the French turned to expensive canned vegetables and meat.

Canned sardines were popular among French people. In France, tinned pilchards caught on earlier than other types of canned foods. The food was popular among working-class people, who kept tins of canned sardines for when they didn't have time to cook. According to a 1956 Commercial Fisheries Review entry for Vietnam, canned sardines were imported from France and its possessions during the colonial period through a preferential trade system, with the main consumers being French colonists. The most popular type of canned sardines were packed in tomato sauce, which was also the cheapest at the time.

These canned goods also reached the Vietnamese middle- and upper-class. Peters mentions there was a rise in European goods consumption among Vietnamese at the turn of the 20th century. This can be further proven by the proliferation of newspaper ads promoting canned goods and bottled wine in Vietnamese. While France had a sardine-canning industry in place, if one goes through the plethora of Vietnamese online blog entries and newspaper articles expressing nostalgia for canned sardines of the past, they might find Vietnamese writers raving about tins of Sumaco sardines from Morocco. These tins originally belonged to Conserval, a sardine company from Safi, one of Morocco’s most famous sardine ports.

While refusing to eat the produce that colonized land offered, the French colonists seemed to not mind their sardines being harvested and canned from Safi or Agadir, the two famous sardine ports of Morocco, a country that became a French colony in 1912. When the French colonized Morocco, industries such as canning vegetables and sardines developed.

After the French army left Vietnam, canned sardine imports in the country dropped heavily. Meanwhile, a local industry was emerging, starting with one small plant that produced 8,000 cans of sardines daily.

A bánh mì cart with sardines cans stacked on top of each other. Photo via Bao Moi.

Vietnam was also early in adopting canning technology. According to a newspaper article published on Tia Sang in 1954, Vietnam was the only country in Asia to attend a conference on canning technology in Poland that year. In 1958, with help from the Soviet Union, the country’s first canned fish factory was constructed in Hai Phong Province. The company still exists today, and has expanded its production to all types of canned goods under the name Ha Long Canfoco.

The Body Politics of Sweetened Condensed Milk

You can tell whether someone was brought up poor or rich based on which type of milk they were fed as an infant. Rich children grew up drinking milk powder from Guigoz cans. The rest of the population used sweetened condensed milk diluted in hot water. 

The ubiquity of sweetened condensed milk in Saigon often led me to assume that it exists everywhere else in the world. We use sweetened condensed milk for coffee, baked goods, smoothies, flan, assorted smashed fruits, bơ dằm (smashed avocado), bread dips and yogurt. Its uniform 380-gram can is used as a unit of measurement when making Vietnamese yogurt and measuring rice (the wisdom goes: four cans equals a kilogram of rice). Its popularity is so great that sữa bò (literally translated to cow’s milk) is colloquially understood as sweetened condensed milk, and whenever one says lon gạo (a can of rice), the "can" is often understood as the sweetened condensed milk can.

To trace the arrival of these cans of condensed milk, perhaps one needs to also mention the erasure of fresh milk in Vietnam. Historian Natasha Pairaudeau found in her research that a fresh milk trade existed in Vietnam during French colonialism. This trade was driven by Tamil livestock herders and milkmen, as there was demand for milk and dairy products from the French in the colony. These Tamils, who arrived in Vietnam in the late 19th century, started selling goat milk, and later imported cattle from southern India to offer the French the option of cow milk, Peters says in Power Struggles and Social Positioning: Culinary Appropriation and Anxiety in Colonial Vietnam.

Tamil carters. Photo reproduced via Natasha Pairaudeau's article.

Pairaudeau notes that by the 1880s, there were no less than 26 Tamil milkmen in Saigon, delivering milk door-to-door. However, by the turn of the 20th century, most of these milkmen barely made ends meet and most were wiped out, to be replaced by the monopoly Nestle had formed.

The reason for this erasure, according to Peters, is the blatant xenophobic advertising rhetoric from the French colonizers. In the early 1900s, France sought new customers for surplus food, including canned milk and wine. This led to a series of advertisements for La Petite Fermiere condensed milk in the Vietnamese newspaper Luc Tinh Nhan Van. One ad shows a dark-skinned Tamil milkman and a light-skinned Vietnamese servant saying to the man that the freshly delivered milk smells like “hairy-goat.” Stores in Saigon also advertised the freshness and pasteurization as positive attributes, with a strong emphasis on the milk brand's French origins, tapping into notions of modernity and awareness of sanitization and hygiene.

This rhetoric quickly changed into a different myth, which implored Vietnamese consumers to buy powdered and condensed milk to feed their infants. La Petite Fermiere's second ad features a Vietnamese mom complimenting another mom’s child on their weight and health. Nestle, the Anglo-Swiss brand, extolled the same rhetoric in their ads printed in Vietnamese papers such as Phu Nu Tan Van, Ngay Nay and Cong Luan Bao and soon became dominant in the market.

One example of note is an advertisement which said that in a baby contest held in Saigon, 79 out of 99 participants were fed Nestle products, and 12 out of 15 awards went to babies which drank either their condensed milk or milk powder. The ads also mention that only 10 babies were fed with mother's milk, subtly hinting at the industrial product's superiority. The aspirations of superior, powerful, bourgeois bodies were thus sold back to the Vietnamese populations. 

The aforementioned advertisement, published in Trung Hoa Tan Van. Photo via National Library of Vietnam.

Along with Nestle, there are other sweet condensed milk brands, such as Mont-Blanc and Vache. These brands didn't run as many ads as Nestle, so it's unclear exactly when and how sweetened condensed milk came to be used in items not related to infants. A look at Ong Tho, currently the most well-known condensed milk brand, might provide a partial answer, as Ong Tho sweetened condensed milk holds no association with babies. 

The Ong Tho brand arrived in Vietnam under the name ”Longevity” after the French colonial era and during the American War. The milk was produced by Foremost Dairies, an American company. During the war, the company served as the primary milk supplier for the US military in Vietnam, along with Meadow Gold Dairies. Starting from 1964, the Foremost factory in Vietnam produced 300,000 cases of sweetened condensed milk per year by importing nonfat dry milk from the United States. Each case contained 48 tins. By 1969, production increased from 35,000 cases to 75,000 cases per month. 

In a file titled "Milk in South Vietnam" retrieved from the Virtual Vietnam Archive, an unknown source claims that after 1967, milk became a vital product for the military when doctors found themselves treating many vets with gastronomic and colon inflammatory disease due to the lack of the enzyme produced by the intestine to digest milk. While Foremost Dairies later went out of business in the US, its plant in Vietnam was still in operation in the 1960s.

After 1975, the economy was nationalized and collectivized, making Vinamilk the owner of the three largest milk factories in the country, including the Foremost Dairies plant. The other two were the Nestle milk powder factory and the factory belonging to Cosuvina, which holds the trademark for the famous sữa đặc Kim Cương (Diamond sweetened condensed milk brand) and brands such as Cau Be Ha Lan (Dutch Boy), which bears an uncanny resemblance to Dutch Lady, the new name of Foremost Dairies Vietnam. Vinamilk also took over the production of Ong Tho sweetened condensed milk.

Bretel Canned Butter and Nostalgia

Traversing the isles of European import markets or gourmet markets in Vietnam, one might stumble upon red cans of butter that go by the name Bretel and come with a hefty price tag.

A simple search for Bretel butter in both Vietnamese and English will open a wealth of blog posts, forums, online community chatter and posts written by overseas Vietnamese, mostly talking about how they have searched high and low for the Bretel butter can that they enjoyed in the past. Andrea Nguyen wrote about the cult favorite in one post, and it appears in Kim Thuy’s book Ru, when a character offers high praise for the taste of Bretel butter. Thinker Phan Huy Duong, in Mot Hanh Trinh Tu Duy 2, mentions a café in Hanoi where one can enjoy the drink with a toothpick of Bretel butter and a tiny teaspoon of cognac. The Bretel canned butter is also my grandfather’s favorite butter to eat with bread.

There is so little information in English about the butter that it’s hard to believe it used to be the largest butter factory in the world. Vietnamese penning online posts asking for help finding Bretel canned butter were often met with either a clueless reaction from a foreigner or a similar request from other Vietnamese. For older Vietnamese, Bretel canned butter is a time capsule on its own.

The butter in question originally came from Maison Bretel Freres, a butter company established in 1871 by two brothers, Eugene Bretel and Adolphe Bretel. The butter was made in the Manche area of Normandy, France. The type of butter they sold was beurre d’Isigny, which refers to an origin-registered butter made from cow’s milk in areas surrounding Isigny-du-Mer. 

In Bradstreet's Weekly: A Business Digest, Volume 19, a person who visited the Bretel factory recounted what they saw there. Butter was purchased from dairy farmers in the area before being graded and processed. The butter was shaped into a rectangular block, rolled on a slab and packaged in boxes. Often called Normandy roll butter, Bretel's blocks of butter were once a favorite in Great Britain.

There was another type of butter that Bretel also made, notes the witness, which was packaged in tins and reserved for shipping to “hot countries.” Salt was always added to these canned butter.

An advertisement for Bretel, featuring the canned butter. Photo via Didier-Beurre.

In Vietnam during the colonial period, like many types of canned food, canned butter was also a popular commodity on the table of French colonizers. Peters notes that fine French restaurants in Vietnam would use canned butter and whip it with mineral water to make it fresh, as butter only existed in canned form at the time. In her research on French women living in Indochina, Marie-Paule Ha notes that interviewees frequently mentioned Nestle milk and Bretel butter as common staples. Across Vietnamese newspapers that published recipes in the 1920s and 1930s, like Phu Nu Tan Van, there were many recipes that called for butter, a sign that canned butter had also entered the lexicon of the Vietnamese public. 

Maison Bretel Freres was also a popular brand that won many awards at world expositions at the time. Its cans, similar to the Nestle sweetened condensed milk cans, were used as a unit of measurement in the rice trade, as noted in a 1906 French economic report.

Vu Hong Lien, in Rice and Baguettes, remarks that Bretel took a while to penetrate the market in Vietnam, “but once the butter arrived in the country, it never left." Indeed, while Maison Bretel Freres no longer exists, and the concept of canned butter has faded into obscurity, tins of Bretel butter continue to be sold at Vietnamese markets in both Vietnam and other countries, offering a nostalgic commodity for a generation.

The cans today feature the initials “N.V.T,” short for Ngo Van The, who was listed as the person who filed for Bretel’s International Trademark registration in 1964. The, born in 1944, was also listed as the president of Bretel, which does business in wholesale trade.

Canned foods serve as a good reminder that the food we eat, and hence our bodies are inextricably linked to the political-economic system that conditions one's life and communities and the uncomfortable history behind them. The stories of canned food also weave a common thread between people who are on the receiving end of imperialism and global capitalism — the Moroccan laborers on the ports of Safi, the poor Tamil migrants that were pushed to poverty by European colonizers, working-class French people and Vietnamese living in the country and overseas all share a page in history, a taste of the presence and a path to the future.

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