(People buying rice in a state owned food shop in 1985. Photo source: http://tuoitrenews.vn/features/27606/hunger-era-in-vietnam-p1-jobs-tears-during-late-1970s80s)

Everyone has their favorite childhood foods. For me, they were hot steamed rice  with fish sauce and lard;  fried eggs with pig brain, and greaves of fat cooked with anything – scrambled eggs, pickled mustard soup, or simply dipped in fish sauce. Weird foods, I know 🙂

Looking back, I think Mum and Dad were brilliant strategists when it came to foods. The post-war period in Vietnam’s history during late 1970s-1980s was called ‘Thoi bao cap’ (‘Rationized period’), when everything was in short supply, hence ‘rationed’. Mum and Dad used ration cards and stamps to buy our essential supply – rice, lamp oil, foods, etc., but they were never enough. So my parents had to make trade-off decisions of what to get, what could be exchanged with others, and what to grow ourselves.

Our small straw-and-mud kitchen was optimally designed to utilize every squared inch we had. It was divided into 4 quadrants – one for cooking, one for washing, one for a chicken shed, and one for a pig pen which was so tiny that once a pig reached ~70kg, it no longer had any room to roam around in the pen, hence must be sold. For me, it was always a joy to collect eggs from our chicken shed every morning and put them in a huge pot for storage. My parents also used a plot of abandoned land near our house to grow bananas. When my brother and I got a bit older, we turned into self-taught farmers and grew our own black bean and cassava. I often ventured into the bushes to find edible vegetables for our lunches.

Meat ration during those years was so tiny that Mum and Dad sought out other protein sources for us – pig brain, heart, kidney and liver, frogs, and trimmed-off meat from pork fat or bones. Nothing went to waste. My Dad even used frog skin to cover the open end of empty cans to make toy drums for us.

This scarcity of meat created an unusual demand for monosodium glutamate to add that umami meaty flavors to our otherwise bland vegetable dishes. MSG was so highly valued that my Dad’s company gave their employees MSG sachets as bonuses. Every now and then, Mum and Dad would bring a big MSG sachet to the black market to trade for 2 pork legs. Some people got addicted to MSG. My grandfather would refuse to eat any dish without MSG even when we became much better off and could afford meat, fish, or egg everyday. It took him years to give up MSG.

Looking at what my little nieces eat every day now, I sometimes wonder what they will remember as their favorite childhood foods…

(Previous post on my childhood memories – Monsoon season)

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