Vietnamese New Year Rice Cakes: Iconic Festive Dishes and Contested National Identity (1)

Article excerpt

Vietnamese banh Tet (New Year rice cakes) are the most prominent culinary icons of the most important Vietnamese festival. This article examines the sociocultural ideas of contemporary Vietnamese national identity expressed by these dishes, and explores the implicit and complex ways by which they take part in developing Vietnamese cultural identity and nationalism. In terms of the "Imagined Communities" analytical framework, this food item serves as an important means for practicing and "concretizing" national identity. (Vietnam, national identity, food symbolism, rice cakes)

**********

Tet, the Vietnamese New Year festival, is the most important event in the Vietnamese social calendar, and banh Tet, New Year's special cakes (sticky-rice loaves stuffed with green beans and fatty pork, wrapped in bamboo leaves, and boiled overnight), are its ubiquitous culinary icon. Eaten at the onset of the new year by everyone within the country and elsewhere who consider themselves Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese), this festive dish is the essence of the festival and, hence, of being Vietnamese. The cakes are models of the cosmic order. They reflect Vietnamese rice-growing culture and its nutritional logic, and the anxiety that characterizes Vietnamese sociocultural arrangements and conventions. What seems a solid and unified fabric is challenged by ruptures that characterize the contemporary Vietnamese polity, such as the tensions between autochthonous and imported cultural elements, and the contradictions between regional orientations and national identity. The nation's war-ridden history also finds expression in certain aspects of banh Tet. Thus, these humble rice cakes are multivocal and dynamic representations of Vietnamese national identity.

Despite their importance, these culinary artifacts have been ignored by social scientists and scholars of Vietnamese culture. This article, based on anthropological fieldwork conducted in Hoi An (Central Vietnam) during 1999 and 2000, and shorter stays in 1998, 2001, and 2004, explores the varied and even contradictory ideas expressed by banh Tet in regard to a multifaceted, and at times contested, Vietnamese national identity.

National identity has long been a contested construct, and an understanding of nationalism is still limited. Drawing on Anderson's (1983) notion of the "imagined" nature of communities as theoretical and abstract, this article stresses the ways by which food, and iconic national dishes in particular, take part in the construction and negotiation of various facets of this elusive entity. While some research on the practical and "banal" (Billig 1995) aspects of "doing nationalism" is recent, the role of food in constructing national identity has been largely overlooked. This article suggests that iconic dishes, due to various intrinsic qualities of food, are particularly suitable means for the negotiation and expression of complex and contradictory ideas concerning national identity, especially with authoritarian regimes such as Vietnam's.

FOOD AND NATIONAL IDENTITY

Iconic dishes are powerful markers of national identity. Mennell (1985), in his comparison of English and French cuisines, argues that recognizable national cuisines appear hand-in-hand with the appearance of the modern nation-state, while Bell and Valentine (1997:168) point out that "food and the nation are so commingled in popular discourses that it is often difficult not to think one through the other.... " In a similar vein, "[s]tories about eating something somewhere ... are really stories about the place and the people there ... the reading of a food's story reveals, like any good biography or travelogue, a much bigger story ... of particular times and places" (Freidberg 2003:3-4).

While these writers stress the strength and immediacy of the relations between food and national identity, they also point out that iconic national dishes are more often than not imagined (Anderson 1983) or invented (Hobsbawn and Ranger 1983). …