No matter the culture, the kitchen is always an important part of the house and home. It’s where we go to receive sustenance and it’s the place where the family comes together to share in the simple yet meaningful act of eating. While some might consider the kitchen as a utilitarian location, and would rather head to their local Thai restaurant than whip up a family meal – for a cook, a chef, or the head of a family it is without doubt the heart and soul of the home. If you believe the secret ingredient in every dish is love, you are close to understanding how symbolically important the kitchen is. In Indochina, and particularly in the Vietnam region, this is more than just a vague cultural epithet. Folklore surrounds the kitchen and once a year, in the Taoist tradition, there is a celebration of the fabled ‘kitchen gods’.
The gods of the Vietnamese kitchen are known in a few different forms –Tao Quan, Ong Tao, Ong Lo or Ong Vua Bep – and may be represented as just one person, or many. The central myth is that at the end of the lunar year, the gods of the kitchen (who have been watching over the family throughout the year) travel up to the Jade Emperor in the heavens and report on each family’s events and experiences. The folklore is based around the story of Tao Quan.
The legend goes that once there was a married couple who lived together in the woods and their names were Trong Cao and Thi Nhi. Despite a long and happy marriage, the couple were not blessed with any children. Upset and unhappy with this, Trong Cao took to drink and one day grew so distressed that he beat his wife, Thi Nhi, and threw her out of the house. Devastated, Thi Nhi wandered the woods in search of help, eventually coming to the home of a woodcutter, Pham Lang. Thi Nhi and Pham Lang fell in love and lived together happily in the woods. Shortly after throwing his wife out of their home, Trong Cao realized his mistake and left the house to find her to make amends. He wandered far and wide, losing all of his money and possessions, turning into a beggar in his search of her. One day, Trong Cao came to the home of Pham Lang and Thi Nhi while the woodcutter was out at work. Recognizing her old husband, the old couple talked for hours about their life together, Trong Cao begging for forgiveness and Thi Nhi remembering her love for her old husband. Fearing misunderstanding, however, when Pham Lang returned home that evening, Thi Nhi hid her old husband in a haystack. In a terrible turn of events, Pham Lang set fire to the haystack to create ashes with which to fertilise his fields. Not wishing to cause trouble for his old wife, Trong Cao did not call out and burned to death in the haystack. Devastated by her old husband’s sacrifice, Thi Nhi threw herself into the burning pyre. Finally, unable to understand his wife’s actions and unable to live without her, Pham Lang jumped into the fire as well. Touched by their story, the Jade Emperor in heaven decided that he would keep these three together, immortalizing them as one god Tao Quan – two males and one female, rolled into one but each with a unique job. Trong Cao would become Tho Dja, the god of the homestead; Thi Nhi – Tho Ky, the goddess of the marketplace; and Pham Lang would be Tho Cong, the god of the kitchen. This trinity is often represented by the three prongs on a primitive stove.
On the 23rd of December, each year the Tet Tao Quan festival is celebrated. The purpose of the festival is to help the deities on their way up to heaven. It is the first of seven-days of celebration to welcome in the new year. Although the name is easy to confuse, Tao Quan is the folk tale, whereas Tet Tao Quan is one of the most important religious festivals in Vietnam. Traditionally homes will be cleaned from top to bottom for Tet Tao Quan and many culinary delicacies, such as banh chung (or banh tet) are prepared. Banh chung is a steamed sticky rice, wrapped around a green-bean paste, pork fat and meat which is then marinated in nuoc mam and boiled in banana leaves, giving it a pale green colour. Indulging in special foods and activities is a way of getting the new year off to a good start.
In the legend, each year Tao Quan ride a magic carp up to heaven, so in many homes bowls of carp are released into lakes, rivers and ponds to help the gods travel. It’s also a symbolic way to show gratitude to the animals and fish which we eat – so even as non-vegetarian, you can show your meal respect. So next time you’re tucking in to a delicious bowl of aromatic Pho or spiced noodles, think of the legend of the kitchen gods – you may not feel the need to partake in their worship, but their existence should give you some idea of just how seriously we take our food and its preparation in Indochina.