Tet holiday, known as Lunar New Year through most parts of the world, is the biggest celebration in Vietnam. When it comes to Tet, nothing brings the family together quite like food, both the cooking and the consumption of it – it is, after all, the main event of the holiday.
You’ll find the whole family rubbing shoulders in the kitchen during the build-up to Tet. The customs of Tet are told mostly through the food, which is steeped in tradition and therefore central to Vietnamese culture during this festive period.
Sticky rice squared cake
No Tet dish carries as much significance as this savory rice cake. The story is regaled across Vietnam each year, often told while the sticky rice cake is being made, which takes some time. Following a victory over the Shang Dynasty in the 17th Century BC, the King gave his 18 sons one year to prepare their best dish, with the winner of the contest to become successor to the throne. His 18th son, too poor to travel in search of exotic ingredients, created two cakes of rice, pork and beans, emulating the sky and the earth. The youngest son won his father’s admiration and went on to become king, with his culinary legacy being celebrated by Vietnamese families every year since.
Simply prepared, a boiled chicken acts as a focal point for any Tet meal. It’s another dish that brings the symbolic weight of history and tradition to the table, for a boiled chicken is considered an emblem of purity. The finest chickens for Tet are bright red – a lucky color across East Asia – with smooth feathers and small legs. You’ll find many well decorated chickens out on display in family’s altars, with roses or trimmed carrots in their beaks.
Given the significance of food during the Tet holiday, cooking tends to take a lot of time, but it is a labor of love and always a worthwhile investment. Take the sticky rice cake for example; hours of work go into perfecting the dish and the braised pork is no different. With hours spent covering it in herbs and spices, braised pork is gently cooked over the course of a day to become extra tender and indulgent.
Fried spring roll
Though not exclusively reserved for the Tet holiday, these crispy bites make for perfect finger food, but they also serve as an ideal side dish during the Tet holiday dinner too.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the table at Tet can be a little heavy on the meat and somewhat lacking in the vegetable department. Fortunately, no Tet dinner would be complete without the traditional Tet salad, which incorporates plenty of traditional Vietnamese herbs and vegetables and, yes, more meat.
A Vietnamese sausage is undoubtedly a unique creation. A little different and a little surprising to anyone expecting a western style grilled sausage. Made from lean pork, potato starch, garlic, ground black pepper and fish sauce, the sausage is ground down into a patty and wrapped in banana leaves as an embodiment of all that is delicious and Vietnamese.
Soup with pork skin
For this unique dish, dried pigskin is left to soak in water, before being put in the refrigerator from anywhere between eight hours and three days. The skin is then removed and left to boil with an assortment of vegetables, such as cabbage or bok choy.
Soup with softened bamboo and pig’s trotters
So, you’ve used the skin, but you’ve still got the trotters lying around, that’s fine, there’s another soup that will be perfect to make the most of your pigs. While it may seem unusual to some, Vietnamese cuisine traditionally uses an array of ingredients, where nothing – especially from an animal – goes to waste.
Momordica cochinchinensis sticky rice (a.k.a Xôi Gấc)
You’ll be able to spot Xoi Gac easily due to the distinctive red color. The Gac fruit may have found its way to dinner tables around the world, but it was first discovered in Vietnam. The tradition of eating sticky rice with this bright red fruit is subsequently an absolute must for Tet.