Every February, I get to celebrate an extra holiday. This holiday is the Lunar New Year or some would call it Chinese New Year. Since I am Vietnamese, it is called Tet. The Chinese and Vietnamese share the same lunar calendar. This is the year of the sheep. The celebration begins on February 19, 2015.
Because I grew up in the US, I’ve never seen what Tet is like in Vietnam. I only know what my parents and relatives tell me. They tried to preserve the tradition year after year but as I got older, those traditions seem to fade. Perhaps Tet through a child’s eyes make it extra special. I still remember what I love most about Tet. Let’s count down to my five favorite Lunar New Year traditions.
#5 Bánh chưng
Bánh chưng is boiled glutinous rice stuffed with pork belly, pepper and mung beans. It is wrapped tightly in banana leaves while it boils for hours. The tightness prevents spoilage. Once unwrapped, bánh chưng is served with pickled leaks, daikon and carrots. This Tet treat is a meal of its own. It’s complicated to make so I buy it in Vietnamese grocery stores instead. When I was a kid, my dad told me it’s stuffed with pork fat because that was all families had to eat. They didn’t have the luxury to fill it with lean meat. I think the pork fat complements the glutinous rice. Everything goes well with pork belly anyway.
#4. Roasted duck
Roasted duck has always been one of my favorite things to eat around Tet. I’m not sure why but it seems to always be around. Some families use the whole roasted duck as an offering to the ancestors followed by lighting incense and prayer. It’s called cúng tổ tiên which translates to making an offering to the ancestors. Honestly, I know very little about this because my family rarely practice this tradition. I must have seen my parents do this a total of three times in my life. My favorite part is we get to eat the offering after the ceremony and the incense is burnt out.
#3. Braised Pork with Eggs in Coconut Juice
I eat this year round. When Tet arrives, this is one of the must-haves at my family’s dinner table. It might take a long time to cook this dish but it’s made up of simple wholesome ingredients. The story behind this dish is the tradition it represents. Pork is very common in Vietnamese cuisine. It represents the animals we consume. The pork butt or belly is braised in fresh coconut juice which represents the land and water. Coconut grows in abundance all over Vietnam just like land and water. The egg represents life. It’s braised in the rich coconut juice to slowly adsorb the caramelized flavor. Add a chili pepper to spice up one’s life. To sum up, this dish is the heart and soul of Vietnam.
#2 Tea and Vietnamese Mứt
Vietnamese mứt is a variety of candied fruit such as kumquat, ginger, sweet potato, soursop and winter mellon all glazed in sugar. Families serve tea and mứt to guests during Tet. Some people drink green, black, or Jasmine tea. This tea complements the candied fruit. I make my own using the candied kumquat and fresh ginger slivers. Don’t under estimate my cup of tea. It may look watered down but it’s full of bursting flavors. Just add hot water and you are set to enjoy tea time this Tet.
#1 Li Xi
Everyone loves money even kids. When I was a kid, Chinese New Year was pay day! All I had to do was wish my uncles good fortune and my aunts eternal beauty and I get one of these red envelopes called li xi. It’s stuffed with cash. Most kids would rack up cash in the hundreds. If you get thousands of dollars then I envy you. The belief is one must spend money to make money. Typically, you stop receiving li xi when you are a working adult or married with kids. Then it’s your turn to do the giving. This was my favorite part about Tet. I’m sure it will be your favorite too if you celebrated Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year or Tet.
Happy New Year.