The Philosophy of Vietnamese Cuisine

The Philosophy of Vietnamese Cuisine

Vietnamese continues to gain popularity. One of the main reasons for this increase in popularity is that it uses fresh ingredients and is bursting with flavors. Vietnamese food is the kind of food that touches all your senses at once.

Vietnamese food uses the five elements philosophy known as wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These 5 elements touch our sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. They also take into account the color and flavor combinations of Vietnamese food.

When you understand the importance of the 5 elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, you then also understand a lot about Vietnamese cuisine.

The Philosophy of Vietnamese Food

Many people may think that the taste and food combinations of Vietnamese food is just the way the Vietnamese have cooked for centuries. Though they have cooked or eaten that way for centuries, there is actually a philosophy behind the sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch you experience when you eat Vietnamese food.

The philosophy for Vietnamese food is based on five basic elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. These five elements come from the Chinese philosophy that is used to describe the interaction and relationship between everything in the world, including food.

The 5 Elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water

These five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water first appeared in China in what is known as the Spring and Autumn period from 770-476 BC. The philosophy of the five elements is used a lot in Chinese medicine. philosophy, Fengshui, fortune-telling, and the martial arts.

As China-controlled Vietnam for over 1,000 years. (You can read the blog A Brief History of Vietnam, What You Should Know by clicking here to find out more about the Chinese era of Vietnamese rule.

The five elements look at how each of these five elements interacts with each other. That is what is known as the yin and yang or how these elements react together or against each other.

The 5 Elements and Vietnamese Food

The Vietnamese adopted the 5 elements philosophy in their own culture in a lot of ways. but one way is in their foods and how they cook their food.

In Vietnamese food, the dishes should have a balance between all our senses. The chart below show how each of these elements work with the Vietnamese food

Wood FireEarthMetalWater
TasteSourBitterSweetSpicySalty
SensesEyesTongueMouthNoseEar
ColorGreenRedYellowWhiteBlack
Vietnamese 5 Elements of Vietnamese Cuisine Taste

Vietnamese Taste – 5 Elements

The taste for the 5 elements is key for Vietnamese cuisine. Many Vietnamese dishes will use ingredients like limes, fish sauce, salt, pepper, vinegar, and sugar. This is because each of these ingredients works together with the 5 elements of taste.

Below is a chart of common ingredients of Vietnamese cuisine and how they work with the 5 elements of taste.

WoodFireEarthMetalWater
TasteSourBitterSweetSpicySalty
IngredientsLimesVinegarSugarRed ChiliSalt, Fish Sauce
5 Elements Taste of Vietnamese Cuisine

These taste 5 elements also correspond to our five different organs of the body like the gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, and urinary bladder. This is back to this belief in that the 5 elements are somehow interconnected.

Vietnamese Senses – 5 Elements

Dishes in Vietnam should appeal to each of our own five senses as the sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. This usually happens through the food itself. For example, the sight would be the bright and vibrant colors of the food. The hearing would include sounds like crispy ingredients as the rice crackers add a cracking noise when you eat the salad or the fried onions that crunch in a salad. The smell is the aroma of the food. The taste is having the sweet yet sour flavors burst in your mouth. And finally, the touch is when some elements of the food are crispy and others are soft.

Here is how each of 5 elements works in Vietnamese cuisine and common Vietnamese ingredients.

WoodFireEarthMetal Water
SensesEyesTongueMouthNoseEars
FoodColor of foodCrispy and soft elements of the foodSweet and sour tasteSmell Cracking or crisp sounds
5 Elements Senses of Vietnamese Cuisine

Vietnamese Food Colors – 5 Elements

Color combinations of Vietnamese food are also important. The dishes should try to have five colors like white (metal), green (wood), yellow (earth), red (fire), and black (water) in all their dishes.

Here are some common ingredients and the color of the food for each of the 5 elements:

Wood FireEarthMetalWater
ColorsGreenRedYellowWhiteBlack
IngredientsMint leavesRed ChilisMangoBean SproutsBlack Pepper
5 Elements and Food Color of Vietnamese Cuisine

Vietnamese Chicken, Carrot, Green Mango and Red Cabbage Salad

Vietnamese Green Mango, Carrot and Red Cabbage Chicken Salad Recipe
Vietnamese Green Mango, Carrot and Red Cabbage Chicken Salad Recipe

We love this example of the Vietnamese, Green Mango, Carrot, and Red Cabbage salad as an example of these 5 elements in Vietnamese cuisine.

The Vietnamese chicken, carrot, green mango, and red cabbage salad has the 5 elements as their ingredients and taste with:

  • Wood – Sour: Limes
  • Fire – Bitter: Onions
  • Earth – Sweet: Sugar
  • Metal – Spicy: Red Chilies
  • Water – Salty: Salt and Fish Sauce

The Vietnamese chicken, carrot, green mango, and red cabbage salad has the 5 elements as their ingredients and senses with:

  • Wood- Eyes: Vibrant color of the salad
  • Fire – Tongue: Soft and crispy elements of the salad.
  • Earth – Mouth: Has a sweet and sour taste.
  • Metal – Nose: The salad has a very good smell or aroma.
  • Water – Ears: Peanuts and cracking of the rice crackers as you eat the salad.

The Vietnamese chicken, carrot, green mango, and red cabbage salad has the 5 elements as their ingredients and color with

  • Wood – Green: Fresh Mint
  • Fire – Red: Red Chilies
  • Earth- Yellow: Green Mango (and Chicken)
  • Metal – White: Bean Sprouts
  • Water – Black: Black Pepper

If you would like to make this recipe you can check out the recipe of the Vietnamese Chicken, Carrot, Green Mango, and Red Cabbage Salad by clicking here.

The fully understand the Vietnamese philosophy of the cuisine you need to understand how the food is affected by the 5 elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and wood. These 5 elements ensure that Vietnamese food is bursting with wonderful flavors that touch all our senses.

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You can find out more by reading our blog Why is Thai Food So Spicy? A Bit of History by clicking here.

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Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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