Viet Nam News
Việt Nam’s biggest, most important traditional festival, Tết (Lunar New Year Festival), is a time of renewal, a time to welcome Spring, a time to thank Gods and ancestors and pray for their blessings. Special dishes are made to offer the Gods before they are shared by family and friends.
In that spirit, Foodwise shares with you some stories about a few delicious Tết dishes cooked in the country’s three regions.
There are nine traditional dishes made in the north of the country, but one that can be considered the very soul of Vietnamese Tết is the bánh chưng (square cake).
This special cake carries the fragrance and sweetness of glutinous rice, the buttery taste of green bean, the meaty flavour of pork and light hotness of peppercorns.
For thousands of years, this cake has always been present on the ancestral altar of every family in the north.
The legend is that the 6th Hùng King, who wanted someone to succeed him, told princes that he would abdicate it to whoever brings the most special things to worship Heaven and Earth before the Lunar New Year.
Most of the princes searched high and low, in the mountains and the seas, looking for special offerings, but the 18th prince, Lang Liêu, stayed put. A deity informed him that there is nothing more valuable than rice, because it is the food that feeds the people. The deity advised the prince to use glutinous rice to make square and round cakes to represent Heaven and Earth, and wrap it with a leaf and a dumpling, representing the mother and father giving birth to a child.
When the cakes were offered to the king, he was so pleased that gave up his throne to Liêu and named the square cake bánh chưng and the round cake bánh dày.
Since then, these cakes have been indispensable on the worship tray as generation after generation of Vietnamese people offer their thanks to Heaven and Earth. The two cakes are also prominent among the many things on the tray when worshipping the Hùng King’s death anniversary on the 10th day of the third lunar month.
Lý Thị Oanh, 80, of Nam Định Province’s Trực Ninh Village, recalled that in the past, all families, rich and poor, cooked the cake to welcome Tết.
“Though my family was very poor, my mother spent money on buying glutinous rice and green beans to make the cake because the village elders always said we can face hunger all year round, but not on the three days of Tết.”
Oanh said she’s never forgotten the days when her six brothers and sisters joined their mother in wrapping the bánh chưng. “I can still remember the delicious and nutty taste of the cake although it was cooked without a piece of meat.”
She said she feels sorry for today’s youth, particularly those in urban areas, because they have very few opportunities these days to wrap and cook bánh chưng on their own, instead of buying it from markets.
The other eight Tết dishes typical to the north of the country are: dưa hành (pickled welsh onion), giò lụa (lean pork paste), giò thủ (pig’s head paste), thịt đông (pork meat cut into pieces cooked with fish sauce and peppers until it is well stewed and then let it cool and freeze it on the refrigerator), nem rán (fried spring roll), canh măng (dried bamboo shoots soup) ,canh bóng (pig’s dried skin soup), gà luộc (boiled chicken) and chè kho (soft green bean) cake.
MasterChef judge Phạm Tuấn Hải, a Hà Nội native, said dưa hành was a dish that adds to the Tết cheer. The light sourness and spiciness of the onion not only adds flavour, it also helps digest a heavy meal, he said.
Nem rán, once only cooked for Tết parties, are now so popular that they can be had everyday or every weekend.
Hải said he is particularly fund of the fried rolls made by his grandmother because of its aromatic crispy cover, tasty and delicious filling, and lightly salty, sour, sweet and peppery dipping sauce.
He also said a Tết offering tray should never lack a boiled rooster, because it is believed that offering this dish to Heaven and Earth on the New Year Day will ensure an auspicious start and bring in an abundance of happiness.
“Dipping a piece of the yellow chicken covered with thin strips of lemon leaves in a sauce of salt, pepper, chili and lemon juice is one of the most enjoyable, characteristic Tết experiences,” Hải said.
The chè kho (soft green-bean) cake is another popular Tết dish in the north, particularly among Hanoians, Hải said.
“The ingredients of chè kho are simple, green beans, white sesame and sugar, but they come together to create an irresistible taste and texture – cool and so soft that it melts quickly in the mouth.” — VNS