The weather outside embodies comfort, with sunlit warmth and cool winds in perfect balance: the mark of the mildest month of the year, February. Doors and windows usually stand open, letting in the breeze and echoing with the buzz of conversations. The rooms and yards are swept clean, easily cleaner than they’ve been all year, as everyone prepares for the most important celebration of the year - Tết .
To mark the arrival of spring and the first day of the Lunar New Year, every region has its own customs. But all throughout Vietnam, the common denominator is family reunion, with parents and children decorating their home and preparing a special holiday feast together.
Inarguably, the most exciting and memorable moments are the ones in the kitchen: preparing jams and appetizers, cutting vast banana leaves for the banh chung, telling stories of days long gone and of ones to come, while keeping watch over the cooking fires at night.
The feast table has the most stories to tell. From century-old legends, to philosophies rooted in both history and the spiritual world, the traditional foods served during Tết all have reasons to be part of the spread.
1. Bánh chưng/Bánh tét (Sticky rice cakes with pork)
An indispensable part of the feast, banh chưng is the soul of Lunar New Year cooking. Carefully made as the most precious food offering for ancestors, the savory rice cake is called bánh chưng in the North and comes square, while in the Central and Southern regions, it is called bánh tét and in the shape of a cylinder.
Every Vietnamese child knows the legend behind the creation of bánh chưng. The legend states, the king of the 6th Hung dynasty had grown old, and must choose a successor for his kingdom. He tasked his 21 sons with cooking a dish, and the prince who most fully satisfies his palate will become the next king. Lang Liêu, a humble and poor prince, came up with the idea of making round and square rice cakes: the round one to represent the sky and the square to symbolize the Earth, as the Vietnamese ancient tradition dictated. The making of the dish emphasized the importance of rice and water to Vietnamese culture, and the long cooking times plus communal efforts conveyed the virtues of hardwork and patience.Though the other princes presented unusual dishes made with exotic ingredients, the king was most pleased with the unique taste, textures and allegory of Lang Liêu’s dish. Thus, bánh chưng and bánh tét became the most popular traditional foods served during Tết.
Glutinous rice makes up the bulk of either banh chung or banh tet. The sticky rice must be of high quality and soaked from the night before. In a mold, the cooked rice forms the exterior and is filled with mung beans. Fatty pork nestles in the center, the fatter the better. As the cake cooks, the rich juices melt and soak into the rice and beans, making for a thoroughly indulgent bite. Once wrapped in banana leaves, which infuses the rice with a signature green color, the cakes are weighed down and boiled for at least 10 hours.
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2. Gà luộc (Boiled chicken)
The whole boiled rooster is often the centerpiece in many traditional Tết spreads. Not only prepared carefully for pristine yellow skin and a noble silhouette, the chicken also plays a role in bringing good fortune for the year ahead.
Vietnamese people have a special regard for chickens. Not only a nutrient rich food source, the chicken is also regarded for its spiritual relationship with humans, such as waking up farmers to start the day’s work. People also believe that the physical attributes of a strong rooster embodies the essence of Vietnamese daily life: knowledge (the crest resembles a Mandarin hat), martial arts (the claws, spurs and beak are powerful weapons), bravery (the rooster protects its flock), care (one rooster can couple with many hens), and prestige (the rooster can be counted on to always crow on time). Especially for Tết, the feet of the chicken chosen for the feast will also determine a family’s fortune for the new year.
The minimal presentation of the boiled chicken, which is boiled in only water and basic aromatics, represent purity and prosperity. The most important offering placed on the altar, and eventually on the table, the boiled chicken is chosen for its perfect red crest, smooth feathers and strong legs. Often it will come adorned with a rose or carrot carved into a flower shape. The garnish depicts Vietnam’s concept of yin-yang, balancing the masculine rooster with yin, the female counterpart.
3. Thịt kho hột vịt (Braised pork belly with eggs)
A few days before the Tết celebrations, families can be seen bustling about in the wet market buying ingredients. But what every cook looks for first are fine cuts of pork and the freshest eggs. Thịt kho is a simple dish with maximal flavor and richness, requiring only basic ingredients and easy technique. But the longer the dish braises, the better it tastes: the pork softens, almost melting in the mouth with intermingling fat and fish sauce. The eggs slowly absorb more of the marinade, taking on a glistening brown and deeper flavor.
Not only delectable and easy to prepare, thịt kho hột vịt’s presence on the table links back to the symbolism of shapes in the Vietnamese tradition. The pork is cut into thick square piếc and accompanies round eggs, returning to the traditional metaphors of the square Earth in harmony with the round sky. Spooned over a bowl of rice, both the pork and eggs impart a sense of completion as well as comfort, making thịt kho hột vịt one of the most craveable dishes when thinking of Tết.
Ideally the pork belly should have a good balance of meat and fat, and be cut into large square pieces. The marinade includes abundant fish sauce, aromatics, sugar and thick caramel color to impart a signature dark brown. The eggs get a quick boil, then go into the pot along with the pork and coconut water to simmer. Though the dish can be eaten the day of, everyone knows the pot gets better with each day as the flavors infuse. After a few days, the pork becomes tender enough to cut even with chopsticks!
4. Xôi gấc (Red Sticky Rice)
With its strikingly red-orange color, xôi gấc is sticky rice with young jackfruit flesh. Though the chewy rice may be familiar, the unique taste experience of the jackfruit transforms the whole dish into something that can be eaten alone, and versatile enough with either sweet or savory foods.
Xôi gấc is an essential feature in Vietnamese culture, always appearing in weddings, rituals, important ceremonies and of course, the Lunar New Year celebrations. Rice plays an indispensable role in every Vietnamese person’s life, not only as a staple food source but also as the livelihood for many. Because rice cultivation is so dependent on climate, many Vietnamese pray for luck in fair weather and plentiful harvests. With this deeply intertwined connection with the whims of Mother Nature, people serve xôi gấc to honor this most essential ingredient. Using the flesh of young jackfruit, coloring the rice red manifests the most important sign of luck, but also of joy and abundance. A literal representation of rice and red, xôi gấc is one of the most important dishes to include in happy occasions, and no doubt the Tết celebrations.
Gấc, also known as baby jackfruit, sweet gourd, or its scientific name: “Momordica chochinchinensis,” grows exclusively in Asia. The exterior turns a dark orange when ripe, indicating an intensely red pulp that will yield the most vibrant color to the sticky rice. Also known for its medicinal properties, beta-carotene content and antioxidants, gấc lends a unique floral aroma that pairs perfectly with coconut. After the seeds and pulp are scooped out and pressed, the mixture combines with glutinous rice, steamed, then mixed with sugar and coconut milk.
5. Củ kiệu và tôm khô (Pickled onions and dried shrimp)
The sight of woven trays full of drying onions, carrots and shrimp outside markets and even the home, are one of the first signs of Tết in Southern Vietnam. Multiple servings of these pickled Chinese onions and small dried shrimps are essential at the Tết feast. With their sweet, puckering flavor, and crunchy texture, the pickles and shrimp help cut through the rich meats and starchy dishes, allowing the palate to rest.
In Vietnamese and other East Asian medicines, all foods lie on a spectrum depending on their nature. Foods can be categorized as “strong” or “hot,” such as red meat, fried food, chili and coffee, while ”cooling” foods are green tea, watermelon and shellfish. The key is to keep the most neutral state, balancing both hot and cool foods to keep the body healthy. Too many “hot” foods will lead to headaches and anger, while having only cool foods will bring about fatigue and insomnia. When indulging during the Tết celebrations, many foods can become too heavy as layers of richness and strong flavors begin to overwhelm. The củ kiệu and tôm khô provide a respite, cleansing and balancing the palate with its cooling properties. They also contain a beneficial probiotic effect, energizing the body for better digestion. Essential to the enjoyment and harmony of all the traditional dishes, these pickles, if anything, encourage more eating!
Simple and uncomplicated, the preparation for củ kiệu và tôm khô takes place first as they need at least two weeks to pickle. Though jars are widely available, the preparation is simple enough that families still choose to make their own. Once properly dried, the onions and shrimp go into a jar with a mixture of salt, sugar and vinegar. The pickling smooths out the onion’s pungency, with a slightly fermented flavor that balances both sweet and sour.