Not long ago, a bowl of simple white rice was a faraway dream to many Vietnamese people.
Farmers who shed their sweat and tears in the rice paddies and hardworking urbanites alike had to mix rice with either dried manioc, corn or sweet potatoes in the early 1980s, a period of post-war hardship younger generations cannot fathom.
It was a time when the rice harvest was not enough for domestic consumption, let alone exports. Rice was consumed with utmost care and was an edible gemstone.
“Those of you who have the privilege to hold a full bowl of white rice in your hand, every fragrant seed bears in it countless amounts of hard work, sweat and tears!” goes a Vietnamese saying every child should learn.
Now, Vietnam is the world’s second biggest rice exporter behind Thailand and few families lack rice, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cherish the precious white rice grain.
Children that grew up in the 1980s will remember that leftover steamed rice was always cooked to make breakfast. Steamed rice was for main meals, and leftover rice, which hardens overnight, can be fried in a hot pan for 15-20 minutes to make a delicious, filling meal.
While fried rice is now sold up and down the country as a proper dish instead of a subsitutue, in the coastal resort city of Nha Trang it’s a delicacy.
Fried rice in restaurants is often too oily, but in Nha Trang if you avoid fried rice, you’ll have no rice at all.
In the city in Khanh Hoa province, the dish is most popular with salt and chilli, garlic and egg or as seafood fried rice.
With only salt and the spiciness of green chilli, this modest dish is a spicy delight.
The salt they use in Nha Trang is unique – not the super white grains sold in clean containers on supermarket shelves, nor the cheap sea salt sold at the market. This flour-like cooked salt tastes not as strong as other salts.
A third variety is egg-fried rice with garlic, but the egg flavour prevails. It is delicious and good for children with picky tastes.
The highlight of fried rice in Nha Trang is of course the seafood version. The bountiful daily supply of fish brings a fresh feel to the rice. Mixed with squid, shrimp and clams, the seafood rice tastes like Spanish paella.
Paella features rice cooked with seafood in a pan, but the rice is not fully steamed to complete softness, but retains a crunch.
The rice in seafood fried rice is cooked twice. It is first steamed to be soft and then fried to harden the grains and soak up the seasoning and seafood juices.
Fried rice as we first knew it was a dish for hard times, something we wouldn’t have chosen if we could afford white rice every day.
It has turned into a delicacy of its own since then, but we didn’t know it, always thinking life could be much better if we had more money.
Life was joyful then, even with a tightened belt. The saying that ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ is applicable for that time.
But instead of making a drink, if you dab a few drops of lemon juice on a dish of fried rice, it’ll taste much better. Viet Nam News