Saving has always been important in Vietnam. When people have a lot of food today, they tend to save some for tomorrow.
During the long winter, Vietnamese people (especially in the north) like to prepare food in bulk ahead of time -- enough to get them through weeks or even months.
Even today, cooks tend to opt for dishes that can get families through hard times and thrifty moms tend to use their down time to prepare fermented sauces and dried meats for the future.
Ruoc (cha bong in the south), muoi vung, muoi lac are three popular dishes designed to preserve a family through hard times.
Ruoc begins with fresh lean pork, chicken sauteed with fish sauce or steamed fish or shrimp.
(For fish and shrimp, fish sauce should be added after the steaming process).
After cooking, these ingredients are pounded by mortar and pestle and stirred evenly over a hot pan again until the fish sauce evaporates and the mixture becomes very dry.
In the past, ruoc was a precious food normally made for special members of family such as old people and children (especially in big families where food was streched thin. In such households, a jar of ruoc was usually hidden away for special needs.
Even today, ruoc served over hot steamed rice remains a cherished treat on cold winter days in the north.
Muoi lac and muoi vung were considered cheaper and suitable for everybone in the family.
Both dishes are derived from fried groundnut and sesame. To make muoi lac and muoi vung, the roasted nuts and seeds are ground, mixed with salt and then toasted again over a hot pan.
All of these dried items are usually stored in a glass jar for later use. They go well with steamed rice, xoi (sticky rice), com nam (rice cakes), and porridge. Traditionally, they're eaten with boiled vegetables and bowl of broth
Nowadays the dishes serve as a quick healthy solution for those who don't have time to cook much.
During years of scarcity and subsidy in Vietnam, these dishes sustained whole families. They continue to be given as a small gift from parents to children student who live on university campuses.
'Food for storm'
Before refridgeration, many families relied on dried ingredients such as green lentils to get them through hard times.
In the old days, in summer, before stormy days my mother would make gia (green bean sprouts) just in case we could not go to the market to buy food.
A big pot of gia is made from just a small bowl of green beans and water. It provides enough food to get you through the worst storms.
In the south, gia is a very important ingredient.
It's served with many snacks such as hu tieu noodles, bun ca (fish noodle soup ), banh xeo pancake and banh cuon( rice pancake). People in the south also make pickles from gia and serve it as a side dish to balance fried or grilled pork dishes
Nowadays, many gia makers use nasty preservatives; as a result, it can be a good idea to make bean sprouts at home.
How to make gia
Begin by soaking a small bowl of green beans in cold water for one day. After that, put them in a big ceramic pot which has a small cover.
Layer fresh bamboo leaves over each layer of green beans (the final bamboo leaves on the surface should be the thickest).
This ceramic pot must be put in a dark place where the sunlight cannot reach and covered with heavy piece of wood.
Every morning, remove the wood and rinse the contents of the pot for fifteen minutes. After that, drain the pot and return it to the shelf with the heavy wood block. After three or four days, gia will grow.
In the past, many children spent their Sundays helping their mothers prepare ruoc, muoi vung, muoi lac and gia do. For many of these children, watching raw ingredients become permanant staples provided their first "science lesson" -- a passtime that helped capture their young imaginations.