All Good Thoughts, All Good Food

The symbolism and celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese new year

Tâm Deli owners Tâm Bui (l) and Tran Ngoc hold 
packages of <i>banh chung</i> in front of their good 
luck tree.
Tâm Deli owners Tâm Bui (l) and Tran Ngoc hold packages of banh chung in front of their good luck tree. (Photo By John Anderson)

Austin has a rapidly growing and vibrant Vietnamese community, as well as an expanding number of excellent restaurants. But as prevalent as the local Vietnamese culture is becoming, if you're not familiar with it and want to be, you have to seek it out – you're not always exposed to it. While doing a follow-up to a recent review, I received an invite to a Vietnamese New Year's dinner at the home of Tâm Bui, co-owner of Tâm Deli (8222 N. Lamar, 834-6458), one of Austin's favorite Vietnamese restaurants. I'm pretty familiar with the Thai and Chinese forms of the lunar new year, but I didn't know that much about the Viet version. I decided that research was in order so I wouldn't look like a complete idiot, and I wanted to know the background of the celebratory foods.

New Year's in Vietnam, occurring this year on Feb. 9, is known as Tet Nguyen-Dan, or Tet for short. Translated loosely, the term means "the first morning of the first day." It's the most significant holiday of the year for the Vietnamese and is based on the beginning of the new lunar year: the time to reflect on the events of the past year and to get a clean start on the coming year.

For Viets, Tet is sort of like our Day of the Dead, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and one giant mass birthday party all rolled into one. It is full of ceremony, mythology, celebration, and food, and it provides a link between humans and their natural and spiritual world. There are prescribed rituals to be followed on days leading up to, during, and after Tet, all originating from China around the time of the Han Chinese domination in the first century.

On its most basic level, Tet occurs at the end of the Vietnamese winter, the biggest period of change in the agricultural cycle: Fall harvest is completed, and the new crops are ready to be sown. The weeks leading up to Tet are frenzied: There are new clothes to buy, the houses must be gussied up and cleaned spotlessly from top to bottom, decorations must be made, fireworks purchased, debts paid off, feuds ended, fields prepared for planting, invites issued, greeting cards sent out, and much food prepared. The market vendors are worked into a fever pitch, as everyone wants to buy the very best for Tet celebrations.

One week before Tet, the Kitchen God, Ông Taó, departs to heaven on the back of a carp to report the activities of each household to the Jade Emperor. Since activity in the house centers on the kitchen, Ông Taó is privy to both good and bad occurrences throughout the year. A good report ensures fortune and happiness in the coming year, so he's encouraged aloft with sweet treats, and helped along by burning paper fish. Tet Nien ("to extinguish the year") then begins, with visits to the graves of relatives to celebrate their lives, invite their spirits to the Tet ceremonies, do some tidying up, leave fruit trays, and burn incense and paper offerings of symbolic riches. Comparisons to Día de los Muertos are hard to ignore. Now the serious preparation begins.

Fortuitous tree branches are purchased to ward off evil spirits: peach branches laden with blossoms in the north, and apricot blooms in the south (due to the heat, peaches can't grow there). The story goes that two legendary deities lived in a big peach tree. These two were so strong and powerful that the bad spirits feared them, and even the sight of a peach blossom is thought to be enough to keep the evil spirits at bay. Potted kumquat trees are bought to symbolically represent the many generations of a household: fruits are grandparents, flowers are parents, buds are the children, and the leaves are the grandchildren.

A large bamboo limb that has all but the top leaves stripped off is placed in the ground (or in a pot inside the house) to scare away evil. It is decorated with red paper banners (evil hates the color red); greeting cards; paper carp; and sayings of luck, fortune, and happiness, with a yin-yang symbol on top instead of an angel.

The days shortly before Tet are when the food part of the celebration starts to surface. The belief is that no cooking should be done in the house on the day of Tet: It would create a mess (the house has to be pristinely clean, and to sweep dirt out the door might risk sweeping good luck right along with it), and the home will be full of relatives requiring hospitality, so food needs to be ready for consumption. Since the markets will all be closed for three days, you couldn't buy any food to cook even if you wanted to. In the days before refrigeration, all of the foods had to be items that were resistant to spoilage, since they had to last several days. These traditions are still in effect today. There are also differences in foods eaten for Tet in the north and the south, based on what can grow in the vastly dissimilar climes. Foods should be symbolically suggestive of abundance, longevity, and prosperity.

Tran Ngoc working in the kitchen
Tran Ngoc working in the kitchen (Photo By John Anderson)

All of the family gathers in the kitchen to help make banh chung, a tamale-like loaf of sticky rice stuffed with a layer of mung beans, pork, and pork fat and wrapped in banana leaves. These are cooked for hours, and the making of them is a family effort (reminding one of the Mexican tamalada). They are cut into wedges so that everyone gets an equal portion of the filling; they're often dipped in sugar for sweetening. They can last for days with no refrigeration, and when they get a little tough after several days, they are cut into slices and fried to a golden brown. The cakes are symbolic of the Earth, since they are green on the outside from the banana leaves, and of thanks, for the bounty placed on Earth. Another type of rice cake is banh day or banh tet, a rounded white cake of sticky rice eaten as an accompaniment to other dishes, and symbolic of the heavens.

Some of these cakes are always placed on the family altar to the ancestors, along with ripe pomelos. A Mam Ngu Qua (five-fruit tray) is placed next to the altar, composed of five different fruits arranged in a pyramid (symbolic of the five elements of Viet philosophy – metal, wood, water, fire, and earth – or of the five fingers of the hand that enable man to work and produce wealth). Pictures of the departed are surrounded with white lotus buds, incense, and red candles to invite their spiritual presence at the Tet festivities.

Xoi vo, a sticky rice cylinder rolled in mung bean paste is made. Pickled vegetables are cooked, especially shallots, bean sprouts, daikon, leeks, and carrots. Pigs' trotters (or ribs) stewed with dried bamboo shoots is a popular dish in the north, while pork stewed with coconut milk is big in the south. Kohlrabi, cauliflower, or onion stir-fried with pig skin or lean pork is common. Meat or grilled shrimp pies are usually there. Some kind of kho (salty, stewed meat dishes) is always present in the Tet larder. Steamed or smoked whole chicken and fish are symbolic of abundance, since they are not cut up into small bits and stir-fried (a way to stretch an expensive ingredient in normal daily cooking). Mang, a soup of bamboo shoots and fried pork, is readied. A variety of cold cuts are prepared: gio thu (head cheese), gio bo (beef and dill pâté), cha mo (pork and lard on pâté that's fried), and gio lua (basic pâté).

Mut, or preserved sweetened fruits, are very popular, especially to have with cups of hot tea for visitors who drop by. These are made from coconut, melon, ginger, lotus seeds, lime, etc., and are normally dyed red or orange. Watermelon seeds are roasted and dyed red to be eaten as a snack, much like sunflower seeds. Every kind of fruit imaginable is on hand, especially watermelon (preferably one with a deep, deep red interior), and any fruit with a red exterior is desired.

Once the cooking is done, the family can get ready for Giao Thua (New Year's Eve). It's the transition period from the old to the new, and the most important moment of the celebration. The gathered family congratulates one another for turning a year older, as Tet represents a universal birthday for everyone. Surprisingly, most young Viet children don't know when their birthdays are because they aren't celebrated the Western way. Instead of Father Time, Viets herald in the new annual rotating replacement from among the 12 Highnesses. Fireworks are set off, and best wishes are offered to all.

New Year's Day, Mong Mot Tet, starts with a bit of apprehension, as the first person to visit the house should be influential and prosperous as a portent of the coming year's fortune. Some people prearrange the first visitor, but this is considered a slap in the face of luck. Children are decked out in new clothes before they receive their Li Xi (lucky money), red envelopes of new crisp currency that are given with copious amounts of sage advice for the coming year. Foods are arranged buffet-style so that they are ready when needed.

Hopefully, the father has provided for the local unicorn or dragon dancers to appear at the house so that everyone can watch. The animals symbolize power and prosperity, and their dances, often accompanied with fireworks, are meant to scare away bad spirits. Once things settle down a bit, the family goes out to visit the direct relatives (especially the father's parents), in order of age, to show respect and offer wishes (on the second day, the wife's parents and secondary family members are visited, and on the third, friends and business associates). Paramount for those first three days is that everyone is positive and friendly, and no cross words are spoken, no anger or rudeness is shown. Your actions determine what the coming year will be like, so you don't want to blow it with petty actions.

There are trips to the church or temple to pray for the coming year, more visits to the graves of ancestors to offer well wishes, and gifts are relayed to close family, friends, and associates. It's a time of good will and happiness. No businesses are open, and everyone is off from work for the entire three-day period.

Here in the States, the practice of Tet is modified to adapt to the pace of life and the rigors of work. Viets here are much more pragmatic about the holiday, and celebrate when they can, and to the best of their abilities. Central to these celebrations is the belief that whether you believe in the traditions or not, they provide continuity with the past and provide a strong family bond and a unique cultural identity that holds the community together.

So, now that I have researched the traditions and practices of Tet and learned about the foods, I can be confident that I won't commit some major social blunder at the Tet party at Tâm's house. I can't wait to attend and have already been salivating over her planned menu of banh chung rice cake, xoi vo, pickled shallots and daikon, pâté and head cheese, thit kho (salted pork with egg), and the other bounty that she and her sister Tran will prepare. I know that it will be delicious, I'll be among good friends, and I'll be thinking only good thoughts to ensure my fortune and happiness in the coming year. end story

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