The Lunar New Year, also known as Tet in Vietnam, is a joyous festival celebrated with much enthusiasm and anticipation. As families come together to welcome the new year and bid farewell to the old, food remains a central element in the annual festivities, as people honour centuries-old culinary traditions to bring forth health, wealth and prosperity. From the delicately wrapped banh chung made to express gratitude to ancestors, to the lucky red melon seeds symbolising good fortune, these culinary traditions hold a special place in the hearts of Vietnamese people, as a significant part of their cultural heritage.
Beloved Banh Chung
In the realm of Vietnamese folklore, there exists a legend surrounding the creation of square-shaped "banh chung" enveloped within vibrant green "dong" leaves. These leaves symbolise the fertile soil that sustains Vietnam's rice agriculture. Nestled within the hearty banh chung lies a harmonious blend of sticky, aromatic rice, accompanied by tender green beans and succulent cuts of fatty pork belly, meticulously marinated with an array of seasonings and crushed pepper.
In preparation for Tet, the Lunar New Year festivities, "dong" leaves can be found adorning the stalls of bustling markets across Vietnam. Ensuring the utmost aesthetic appeal, the leaves must possess a vibrant green hue, free from imperfections. Before commencing the wrapping process, these leaves must be thoroughly cleansed of any dust or debris, left to air dry naturally, and bask in their verdant splendour.
The construction of a banh chung rests upon the utilisation of five or six "dong" leaves, while the quantity of rice and filling depends on the desired size of the cake. Wrapping these delectable morsels involves a series of careful steps: skillfully arranging the leaves at strategic angles, evenly distributing a layer of glutinous rice upon their delicate surfaces, scattering an even layer of green beans atop the rice, artfully placing the marinated pork belly at its heart, followed by additional layers of beans and rice. Eventually, the leaves are wrapped into a neat square, fastened securely with a string. This process demands precision to ensure the cake retains its shape and equilibrium. Once the cake is expertly wrapped, it is ready to be boiled in a large pot, a crucial stage demanding the utmost meticulousness, time and effort over a period of 7 to 10 hours.
Despite the prosperity witnessed by the economy in recent years, and the convenience of readily available banh chung in the market, numerous families steadfastly uphold the cherished custom of crafting their own banh chung during Tet, without which the Tet tray dedicated to ancestral veneration would be incomplete. Through this heartfelt tradition, they seek to impart the wisdom and reverence for their ancestors' customs to their children. Despite the toil exerted, the ensuing moments of familial unity around the banh chung create indelible memories, deeply treasured in the hearts and lives of all who partake.
Pickles Of Prosperity
One culinary tradition that holds a special place on the Tet table is the assortment of Vietnamese pickles. These delightful condiments, known as "dua muoi" or "dua mon" in Vietnamese, add flavours, colours, and auspicious symbolism to the festive feast. It is said that these tangy and crunchy bites of pleasure bring balance in flavour to the festive table, thus bringing harmony to the family.
One of the most popular and widely consumed pickles during Tet is the carrot and radish pickle, or Dua Gia. This pickle exudes vibrant hues of orange and white, symbolising luck, happiness, and purity. Carrots and radishes are peeled and meticulously sliced or julienned into thin strips. They are then soaked in a mixture of vinegar, sugar, salt, and sometimes fragrant spices like cloves or star anise. Over time, the pickling process infuses the vegetables with a tangy, slightly sweet flavour, while retaining their crispness. Its refreshing crunch and lively taste uplift the overall dining experience during Tet.
Another beloved pickle commonly found on Tet tables is the cabbage pickle, known as Dua Bap Cai. Cabbage, with its layers that symbolise wealth and prosperity, is an essential ingredient during Lunar New Year celebrations. Thinly sliced cabbage is pickled in a brine of vinegar, salt, sugar, and sometimes garlic or chilli for an added kick. This pickling method preserves the cabbage's crunchiness while imparting a tangy and slightly sour flavour.
The shallot pickle, known as Dua Hanh. Shallots, with their unique pungency and distinctive aroma, are thinly sliced and pickled in a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and salt to mellow the sharpness of the shallots while imparting a tangy, slightly sweet taste, in a harmonious blend of flavours. This aromatic and zesty pickle serves as a versatile condiment, enhancing the taste of main courses, such as grilled seafood, noodle soups, or fried rice. Its bold and captivating presence on the Tet table adds depth and character to the overall dining experience.
Tet And Thit Kho Tau
Particularly prominent in the South of Vietnam, caramelised pork and eggs, otherwise known as Thit Kho Tau, is a Lunar New Year comfort-food icon that symbolises family affection, and warms the hearts of all who unite at the festive table.
A simple dish, but with maximum flavour, the endearing broth of thit kho is made from coconut juice, laden with lean and fatty pieces of pork seasoned by pepper, fish sauce, chilli and sugar. The simmering pot is reduced until the meat is mouthwateringly soft and tender, and is then served with rice and pickles.
Of course, before serving, it is customary to offer a bowl to deceased ancestors on the family altar, the eggs symbolising goodness and happiness for the year ahead. The thick square pieces of pork are also symbolic, returning to the traditional conceptualisation of the square Earth in harmony with the round sky. Aside from its deep significance and cultural heritage, this dish is ultimately the pinnacle of family style comfort food, and serves as one of the most craved items in the Tet spread, and even the dearly departed cannot miss out.
In advance of the annual celebration, family members flock to the wet markets in search of the finest cuts of pork, not too lean, not too fatty. Once the markets have cleared out and shut down for the festival, this staple dish lasts long throughout the days of closure, and becomes evermore delicious as the nights pass. At first light and delicate, after being heated and reheated repeatedly, the reduced sauce retains an increasingly concentrated depth of flavour in the pot, imbuing the pork and eggs with its salty richness.
Not-To-Be-Missed Nuts & Seeds
Among the array of snacks offered to guests on the special Tet tray, roasted nuts and seeds are essential components for the new year. Enjoying nuts together represents a family custom that is widely enjoyed, and creates a cheerful and friendly environment of togetherness. Each type of nut and seed holds its own nutritional value, as well as carrying good fortune.
Watermelon seeds, or Hat Dua, are red and black seeds with a deep natural pigment that symbolise luck. After being dried and toasted, these seeds become a worthy snack containing an abundance of healthy vitamins and minerals that are good for the body. Eating these seeds is both a leisurely activity and an arduous task that becomes easier with practice, as the seed coat must be peeled to reveal the inner embryo which is aromatic, crispy and buttery.
Easier to open, pumpkin seeds, or Hat Bi, are among the most favourable nuts seen during Tet, and also hugely benefit the body with their chemical properties. Possessing the power to remedy life-altering conditions like kidney disease, intestinal disease and coronary heart disease, these seeds are ripe with nutritional value and more than just a lucky item on the Tet table.
The favourite of children and youngsters in Vietnam, sunflower seeds, or Hat Huong Duong, are also dried and roasted under heat to produce a popular festive snack. The yellow sunflowers grow small edible seeds found within black shells called ‘husks’, and are also rich in vitamins and minerals, and these lucky seeds are said to slow down the human ageing process.
Finally, cashew nuts, or Hat Dieu, are another lucky favourite laden with vitamins that contribute to a healthy metabolism and the prevention of serious ailments. The addition of salt makes for a moreish snack, with a harmonious blend of crispiness, saltiness and nuttyness. Like all these other nuts and seeds, they are best enjoyed with tea, family and conversation, as a delightful finger food that unites loved ones.