Believe it or not, Tet is very much about how much you can stomach.
Vietnam’s Lunar New Year festival is just several days away and some of you may be wondering what it’s all about.
Vietnamese don’t “celebrate” Tet. We “eat Tet.” Some “play Tet,” which most interpret to mean we are eating and drinking Tet.
Here’s a list of some of the stuff you can expect to eat.
Sticky rice cakes
Everywhere you go, expect to an offer of banh chung.
This meat and bean-filled sticky rice gets steamed and wrapped in a big dong (Phrynium placentarium) leaf. To be honest, it’s dense enough to stop a bullet. As the days of Tet wane, people take to deep-frying pieces of it, which (naturally) makes it better.
Most shape these cakes into a thick square as a nod to the traditional belief that the Earth was square and the sky was round.
Legend has it that the recipe was invented four thousand years ago while a king was trying to figure out who was next in line.
He ordered his sons to come up with a meaningful recipe and the simple mix of sticky rice, mung beans and pork outdid all other offerings—presumably a lot of exotic animals stuffed into other animals.
The king’s choice made banh chung a central part of the Lunar New Year.
There’s also banh day, an unwrapped round sticky rice cake representing the sky.Many people in southern Vietnam prefer banh tet, which is basically the same dish wrapped in banana leaves and shaped like a sausage.
Nowadays, the cakes are sold year-round, typically by vendors pedalling bicycles equipped with mechanized loudspeakers that chant the various names. Factories, likewise turn out tons of them, every season.
Despite their ubiquity, many families in rural Vietnam continue the tradition of spending hours cooking and wrapping the cakes as a way to get into the holiday spirit.
To deal with all this dense food, many households prepare awesome quick pickles that rarely occur in the cuisine outside the holiday.
These pickles tend to be saltier in the North and sweeter in the South, but they always add a nice sour crunch to the many rich dishes served during Tet.
Most cooks tend to ferment the veggies only for just a few days and add ginger or bird’s eye chilies for an extra kick.Few hard and fast rules apply to these holiday pickles, which may include everything from green papaya to cabbage and everything in between.
Those who prefer drinking to eating will find these pickles and dried shrimp a great beer snack.
As food markets are often closed during the holidays, many Vietnamese keep meat around for the many unexpected guests they expect.
Cooks throughout the country will most certainly braise cubes of pork belly and shoulder in fish sauce until impossibly tender. Some will add duck eggs, fresh coconut juice and sugar, depending where they fall on Vietnam’s “S”.
In any case, the meat will get reheated over and over again as friends and family work their way through it.
Others will offer logs of charcuterie known as cha, which may appear as a plain, spongy lunch meat (cha) which can be spiced up with peppercorns, cinnamon or cloves of garlic.
Keep an eye out for slices of head cheese, essentially a gelatin containing shredded pork skin, ears and snouts.
Northern Vietnamese prepare a special aspic known as “thit dong” (frozen meat), which is essentially a congealed savory soup.
Candies and nuts
Candied fruit (mut) adds vibrant color to Vietnamese houses during the holiday.
Residents once prepared these treats at home, filling their villages with the pleasant smell of fruit.
These days, people turn to supermarket shelves lined with hundreds of kinds of snack
Most houses keep a spinning tray of candied coconut, ginger, sweet potato, kumquat, tamarind, and pineapple not far from the home’s teapot.
Not far should be a healthy stock of roasted seeds (watermelon, sunflower and pitaschio) which families may spend hours splitting and eating.
While fresh fruit plays an important role on the Vietnamese table throughout the year, it takes on a whole added significane during Tet.
During the auspicious holiday, fruit must look immaculate on the ancestral altar.
Most families purchase one or two pairs of watermelons on their altars or guest room
The round shape of the fruit, and its red and juicy flesh symbolize luck and satisfaction, which everyone hopes for in the new year.
Likewise, certain fruits are also preferred during the holiday—more for their symbolic significance than their taste.A Vietnamese legend has it that an exiled royal family survived for months on an island replete with watermelons. Today, many believe that beginning the year with watermelons will carry them through the year smoothly.
Many keep a tray of custard apples, coconut, papaya and mango because their names, when put together, sound very similar to a prayer for a fruitful year: “Cau vua du xai” (Bring us just enough to spend).
But according to many, a subtle prayer does not suffice.
That’s why there has been an increasingly popular trend to make the Tet wish more recognizable, by carving words like luck, wealth, and prosperity onto the skin of the fruit or growing them in moulds that result in the shape of a Mercedes Benz or golden ingots.