Even in the lean years of the late 1970s through the mid 80s, when the Vietnamese economy was tightly controlled by the government, Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s family managed to gracefully celebrate Tet.
The Indonesian-based author of “The Mountains Sing” was born in North Vietnam and grew up in a southern coastal province in the Mekong Delta. Months before the holidays, her father carefully tended her stubborn May tree to persuade as many auspicious golden flowers as possible for the first day of Tet. Everyone came in to spice up the house and prepare the family’s favorite foods, such as candied ginger, a warming North Vietnamese nibble, and candied coconut ribbons, an icon from the south.
Now Ms. Que Mai is not celebrating a new year on January 1st. Instead, she’s waiting for Tet.
“There is a sacred sense of joy over a new beginning that comes with the rituals prepare for the New Year, ”she said.
When Vietnamese celebrate Tet, which falls on the New Year’s date of the moon on February 12th, they describe it as “Tet”, a term that translates to “eat the new year”. (Tet Nguyen Dan, the official name, means “festival of the first morning of the first day”.)
There is another popular saying that demands that the first month of the year be a time of eating and idling. Chefs prepare classics to be prepared in advance so they can feast and relax in the moment: versatile cucumbers, silky sausages, broth soups, jewel-colored sweets, and cozy kho, made by cooking meat in hearty, bittersweet caramel -Sauce. The die-hard spend the weeks leading up to Tet crafting college graduate projects with savory sticky rice cakes surrounding ingredients like fatty pork and buttery mung beans. (The version of the northern region is called Banh Chung, and the iteration of the southern and central regions is called Banh Tet.)
Store-bought tet treats are all the rage today in Vietnam and abroad, but Ms. Que Mai, 47, believes they matter less because they are not homemade. “People have money now, but they don’t have time,” she said.
Indeed, but it doesn’t endanger the spirit of Tet. As people have migrated and emigrated, there has been a lot of commingling, rule changing, and innovation, and celebrating Tet is possible anywhere, regardless of your circumstances.
This applies to me as well as to others in the diaspora. My family fled Vietnam in 1975 when I was 6 years old and I have not stayed in Tet since then. Even though I don’t live in Vietnam or any enclave in Little Saigon, the Lunar New Year stays strong in my DNA. It’s more of a state of mind than a milieu.
Christine Ha, the blind goat cook and Xin Chao in Houston, spent her early school years eating banh chung, prepared by her paternal grandmother and aunt for her clan of 100 who came to her house to Pay my respects to Ms. Ha Grandfather, the family patriarch. Ms. Ha, 41, is now deviating from the standard of preparing everything from scratch and buying some dishes from the local Little Saigon stores.
But she still wants to capture the essence of that time with her family. “I learned to do Banh Chung to pay homage to my Ba Noi,” she said, referring to her grandmother. “It’s the only tradition I’ve understood and loved.”
Christina Nguyen, 36, the cook for Hai Hai in Minneapolis, was a thug during Tet even as a child. When she was young and picky, she avoided the required sticky rice cakes at large family gatherings and only ate her favorites like fried cha gio spring rolls and tender steamed banh beo rice cakes. At these gatherings, Ms. Nguyen gambled away her little red envelopes with new bills in a popular dice game called bau cua tom. The childhood food and rebellious fun now inspire their restaurant’s Tet menu, which last year included fried spring rolls with venison, a nod to the deer that appears on the dice and mat in the game.
Lisa Tran grew up with her family in Oregon and played Bau Cua Tom Ca – and bingo. Four generations of trans are now celebrating the new lunar year together with enthusiasm and gratitude. “Without the sacrifices my parents made, we wouldn’t be where we are right now,” she said.
Her mother and father fled Vietnam by boat and spent about five years in an Indonesian refugee camp, where Ms. Tran, now 39, was born. In the late 1990s, the opening of Tan Tan, their cafe and deli in Beaverton, Ore, faced financial uncertainty.
Ms. Trans’s 89-year-old paternal grandmother prepares Banh Tet, which she serves with other iconic South Vietnamese holiday dishes such as Canh Kho Qua, a filled bitter melon soup. There is a penchant for confident bitter melons during the holidays because, as Ms. Que Mai said, “When we taste bitterness, we know what sweetness is.”
The lunar new year is often referred to as a happy occasion, but for the Vietnamese, whose history is filled with both loss and triumph, the holiday itself is bittersweet. That feels especially poignant this year as the precariousness of our time has made me take a stripped-down approach to usher in the Year of the Ox in my Northern California home.
I skip the sticky rice cakes (my mom has already sent me some) and instead focus on simpler comforts to remind myself of my home and heritage. There are Nordic-style dishes based on family recipes, such as Dua Hanh, slightly spicy, rosy pickled shallots that are great for cutting rich dishes like suon kho, pork ribs that are grilled and then in bittersweet caramel sauce and fish sauce into a soulful Earthiness to be cooked.
You can’t have enough pork during Tet, so I’ll also cook a pot of tropical Thit Kho Trung as a nod to South Vietnam, where I was born. The braised pork and eggs are flavored with caramel sauce and coconut water and eaten with rice and a refreshing pile of dua gia, a crispy pickled bean sprout salad.
During my weeklong Tet celebration, I look forward to eating Keo Lac Vung, a fragrant crispy peanut and sesame candy. It’s one of many candies that I nibble on while thinking sweet, positive thoughts for the year to come. We could all use this practice for a major reset in 2021. And eating tet is the most delicious way of doing it.