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Ha Noi chef keeps Tet food traditions alive

Update: January, 28/2014 - 02:16

Colour balance:Muc nau roi, another classic Tet soup. — VNS Photos courtesy of Hoa Sua School

by Ngan Binh

"I love the warm atmosphere of Lunar New Year's Eve, when the whole family gets together to enjoy the traditional year-end feast," Pham Thi Vy says.

While most Vietnamese people look forward to year-end, Vy is particularly passionate about the holiday meal. As a former director of Hoa Sua Vocational Training School, a culinary training school for disadvantaged youth, she has made it her mission to preserve a traditional way of cooking that is gradually disappearing. At the age 70, Vy still remembers the unparalleled taste of the Tet feast that she and her mother used to prepare.

Born into a well-educated family in Ha Noi, Vy grew up surrounded by food. Her mother was from Hang Duong (Sugar) Street, in the capital's Old Quarter, where confectionary, particularly fruit preserves, was sold.

Vy remembers her getting up early in the morning to prepare breakfast for the family. "I still miss the delicious smell of her mi van than (wonton soup), made with very fresh wheat noodles she prepared herself. Even at the age of 70, she still made fresh noodles and cooked wonton. I also want to cook those foods for my loved ones, but my son asks me to rest instead."

While the Tet festival remains the biggest holiday in Viet Nam, a time for getting together with close relatives, Vy says that food preparations are not as involved as they were in past years. She recalls when six plates and four bowls of foods were placed on the altar of every family as offerings to the ancestors. The foods included ga luoc (boiled chicken), rau xao (stir-fried vegetables), thit nuong (grilled pork), nom (papaya salad), banh chung (square glutinous rice cakes) or xoi gac (red glutinous rice) and gio lua (lean pork sausage) or cha que (cinnamon-flavoured pork pate).

As for the soup, there was canh mang (bamboo shoot soup cooked with pork legs), muc nau roi (dried cuttlefish soup with vegetables and steamed pork paste), bat bong (soup with vegetables, fresh pork paste, black mushrooms and dried shrimp), and ga ham hat sen (chicken soup with lotus seeds).

Taste of the old days:Canh bong nau, a clear soup with vegetables and pork paste traditionally prepared for the holiday.

Today, however, Tet offerings have been simplified and the number of dishes has been reduced. "The foods are simpler to prepare or are bought from the shop already cooked, like gio or cha que. This saves time for the women in the family, ensuring they can fulfill their responsibility to prepare offerings while still having free time," Vy says.

She also points out that families were bigger in the old days and could finish all the special Tet dishes. Today, not only are families smaller, but festive specialties are available all year round in restaurants and instant food stalls.

But while people no longer have to wait until Tet to have banh chung or other special dishes, Vy emphasises that it's still important to know how to prepare them. "I still love to cook the dishes my mother and I used to prepare for the Tet feast," Vy says. "When Tet comes, I cook traditional soups of Ha Noi style like muc nau roi. We always had it in the old days so I still want to have it at my feast."

To make muc nau roi, which Vy describes as "very tasty and healthy, less meat but more vegetables," one needs mang la kho (dried bamboo shoots), su hao (kohlrabi), cu dau (jicama), carrots, dau Ha Lan (green peas), muc kho (dried cuttlefish), gio (lean pork pate) and eggs.

Traditional Tet: Vy has made it her mission to preserve the holiday's culinary rituals. — VNS Photo Ngan Binh

Retired teacher Pham Thi Vy was one of the founders of the Hoa Sua Vocational Training School in Ha Noi. She was made a Meritorious Teacher in recognition of her contributions to education one year before retiring from teaching in 1993.

Students are trained to cook Asian and European cuisine or work as pastry chefs and waiters. They are also taught English and French.

In its 20 years of existence, the Hoa Sua School in Linh Nam has provided thousands of children from disadvantaged circumstances, mainly from Ha Noi and suburban areas, with occupational skills and cultural knowledge. Many have their tuition fees waived.

Hoa Sua students go on to work at major hotels and restaurants including Nikko Hanoi, the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, the Hilton Hanoi Opera and the Sheraton Hanoi Hotel.

Last year, Vy left her position as director of the school and took on an advisory role.

Vy explains the painstaking preparations for the dish, from washing and slicing the cuttlefish to decorating the bowl after cooking. Colour balance is critical: the finished bowl of muc nau roi has the light brown of bamboo shoots, orange of carrots, white of kohlrabi, green of peas, yellow-brown of fried cuttlefish, black of mushrooms and the green of the coriander sprinkled on top.

Another indispensable dish for the Tet table is banh chung, which Vy serves with gio and pickled onions. The square glutinous rice cake is often bought pre-cooked because its preparation is so labour-intensive. Rice batter must be stuffed with pork, mung beans and black pepper, wrapped in dong leaves and cooked for 12 hours.

When Vy's mother was the age she is now, she still cooked these dishes during the Tet holiday. But the young women in the chef's family prefer to spend time travelling than stay at home and cook. "Even in my family, my son and my daughter-in-law are not really keen to go into the kitchen, although my son is a good cook," Vy says.

Despite changing lifestyles, Tet is still an occasion for the family to come together. Vy and her family go outside to welcome the New Year, then return home for a small meal. The next day, they travel together to a nearby pagoda.

"It makes me really happy to be with loved ones, exchanging best wishes and lucky money. Then we sit down and enjoy some light food together," she says. "I have experienced years of Tet in that way. I couldn't imagine a Tet without those traditions." — VNS

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