In Vietnamese culture, Tet or Tet Nguyen Dan (Lunar New Year) is the most important holiday. Families and friends get together to honor their ancestors. Sumptuous dishes are prepared and left on the worship altar. The altar has photos of ancestors and is adorned with candles, flowers, and incense. People pray to the spirits to thank them for watching over everyone as well as giving people good health and good luck. Then the meal can begin.
Growing up we always celebrated Tet at my grandparents’ house. When we arrived there would be all kinds of dishes on the table. My grandmother would come out of the kitchen to welcome us with us with hugs. My grandfather would put red envelopes in our hands. The red envelopes symbolize good luck. Inside the envelopes would be a dollar. It was always a wonderful day full of food, love, and warmth.
Below are dishes that are typically served at Tet.
Cha gio are a well beloved food in Vietnam. The crispy spring rolls are usually made with ground pork or crab then they are wrapped in thin rice or wheat wrappers before they are fried. Traditionally the rolls are eaten by hand and would be served with lettuce leaves and fresh herbs before being dipped into a sauce called nuoc mam.
Goi Cuon consists of poached pork and shrimp, fresh mint, vegetables, and rice noodles, that are rolled up in rice paper. Then they are dipped in Hoisin sauce and garnished with crushed peanuts. The rolls are served cold or at room temperature.
There always needs to be soup on the table for Tet. Canh Kho Qua or stuffed bitter melon soup is a very popular dish in Vietnamese cuisine. Bitter melon or kho qua is a commonly used vegetable in Vietnam. It is highly nutritious and has a strong bitter taste. Kho roughly translated means hardship, and qua means the past. By eating the Canh Kho Qua, one is constantly reminded of life’s ups and downs, and life’s bitterness.
Thit Kho Trung is made of braised pork and boiled eggs. The cubed pork is braised in fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and coconut water, then garnished with black pepper. The eggs symbolize happiness and goodness. The pork and hard boiled eggs are cooked in pot for a few hours and are served with rice and pickled vegetables.
5. Banh Chung (Sticky Rice Cake)
Banh Chung is a rice cake made from glutinous rice, mung beans, and pork. It is wrapped up in banana leaves before being boiled for a few hours. The cake symbolizes expressing gratitude to ancestors, the sky, and the earth. It emphasizes the role of rice and water. Making Banh Chung is time consuming and usually requires several people to help make them. Banh Chung is the main food for Tet because it can keep at room temperature for days.
6. Ga Luoc (Boiled Chicken)
The meal offered to the ancestors must contain a boiled or steamed chicken. Chicken is the prized food for Tet. It symbolizes prosperity and abundance. Typically the chicken is boiled and sliced, but sometimes people place a whole chicken on the plate. Many modern families now use a roasted chicken too. The chicken is usually not seasoned because it is served with simple sauces to dip the chicken into.
7. Gio Cha (Vietnamese Sausage)
Gio Cha is Vietnamese sausage that is wrapped in banana leaves before it is boiled or steamed. The three common flavors of this sausage are Gio Lua (ground pork, black pepper, and fish sauce), Gio Thu (pork meat, ear, tongue, nose, cheek, and mushrooms) and Gio Bo (beef). For Tet the banana leaves are removed and roll is cut into pieces and served cold.
Pickled daikon radish and carrots is a favorite condiment in many Vietnamese households. The sweet and sour taste, and the crunchiness of the vegetables make this condiment truly unique. It complements many dishes in Vietnamese cuisine.
Dau Xanh Vung or sesame rice balls are popular sweet in Vietnam. They are sweet dumplings made of rice flour, filled with mung bean paste, covered in sesame seeds, and then deep fried. Vietnamese sesame rice dumplings are adapted from a Chinese recipe where the sweet dumplings are filled with lotus or red bean paste.
10. Five-fruit tray (Mam Ngu Qua)
The five fruit tray is offered to ancestors. Some theorize that the tray is symbolic of the fruits of a family’s hard work throughout the year. While another theory says the five fruits symbolize the five elements – metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Many different kinds of fruits can be used in the tray; kumquats, peaches, bananas, persimmons, pomelos, mangos, papayas, watermelons, coconuts, oranges, plums, mangos, pears, grapes, and figs.
11. Candied fruits and seeds (Mut Hoa Qua)
Candied fruit and seeds are common treats for Tet. For Lunar New Year everyone will prepare a box of candied treats to give to friends, family, and visitors. The beautiful boxes of snacks are placed at a table in the living room and guests would eat the candied fruit and seeds with some tea as a welcome. There are usually a variety of candied snacks: coconut, carrot, ginger, pineapple, pumpkin, lotus seed, melon seed, sweet potato, and star fruit.
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