Holy hog: Vietnam's culinary love affair with pigs

By Minh Nga   May 14, 2017 | 10:00 am GMT+7

Forbidden in some cultures, pork has always reigned supreme on top of the Vietnamese food pyramid.

The Vietnamese lexicon recognizes pork as the standard meat. In the mind of a native speaker, the word “meat” simply means the flesh of a pig.

Traditionally, Vietnamese people did not raise cows for meat or dairy products. Researchers have pointed out that unlike many Western countries, Vietnam did not have the rich meadows conducive for large cattle farming. Its dominant rice farming also needed the labor of cows and buffaloes more than their meat.

Swine, on the other hand, require less space and as omnivores are much easier to please in terms of diet.

For generations, Vietnamese families have kept herds of pigs – and sometimes flocks of chickens and ducks – in their backyards as the original moveable assets. At the end of last year, more than half of the country's 30 million pigs were raised on such smallholdings, but that could soon change with factory farming (and all its pros and cons) gradually starting to take over.

This strong attachment to pigs is well documented in folklore and centuries-old artworks. Nursery rhymes tell of women bringing their piglets to market; poetry is filled with odes to pigs as symbols of wealth and happiness; and paintings of a sow and her piglets are connected to fertility and the yin-yang philosophy.

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Children recreate famous Dong Ho paintings at a festival, including the clasic with a family of ying-yang pigs. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

This ancient relationship with hogs also means the Vietnamese have developed a taste for everything porcine.

Around the world, the humble egg is widely believed to be the most versatile ingredient in everyday cooking. In Vietnam, it’s safe to say that title belongs to pork. Sixty-five percent of all meat consumed in Vietnam is pork. It’s both a daily dish and holiday feast, prepared and enjoyed across the country in all forms imaginable (grilled, braised, boiled or fried) and unimaginable (mock dog meat and sweet dessert).

Hanoi’s iconic bun cha is minced pork grilled over charcoal. A classic Hue dish must include nem and cha, the cured and ham-like versions of pork. In Saigon, pork chops are the star over the city's favorite broken rice, which also incorporates fatty pig skin.

But pork is also the turkey, the prime rib, the foie gras of Vietnamese cuisine – a holiday mainstay that is so embedded in the culture it can’t be replaced.

Weddings, business openings and pilgrimages are not complete without a whole roast pig, which comes with delicious crispy skin that can sometimes overshadow the juicy meat inside.

Thit kho trung, or pork and eggs braised in coconut, is the star of a traditional Lunar New Year dinner in the south, while in the north thit dong is an intricate jellied pork dish that fans of hog's head can't get enough of.

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Clockwise from top right: Four classic Vietnamese dishes cha lua, bun cha, braised pork and pork chop. Photos by VnExpress

With pork becoming cheaper and family budgets rising, festive dishes are turning into everyday staples, which is both a curse and a blessing for porcine supremacy.

The average Vietnamese palate is not known for being adventurous, so it tends to stick with what it knows and loves. But at the same time, years of consuming so much pork, as if to compensate for the hard times when it was a rare luxury, have slowly eaten away at the Vietnamese love for pork, and many home cooks now have the money to choose other proteins.

The recent oversupply crisis is forcing the country to reassess its obsession with pork. Some say poultry or beef may be at the center of a culinary revolution over the next decades.

But that’s the future. For now all hail the hog.