Roll together the way Western people celebrate New Year’s Day, Halloween, birthdays, and Thanksgiving and you’ll have some idea of what a Vietnamese Tet Nguyen Dan celebration looks like. Called Tet for short, this celebration of the Lunar New Year sets the tone for the coming year and is the most important holiday in the Vietnamese calendar.
Like most holidays, food plays a big role in Tet celebrations, think holiday ham, pumpkin pie, turkey and stuffing. Here is a run-down of the must-try traditional Vietnamese foods eaten in celebration of the Lunar New Year.
1. Banh chung (or Chung Cake or Sticky Rice Cake)
These gorgeous emerald green bundles look almost too pretty to eat. Glutinous rice surrounds a rich filling of pork and mung bean paste and then painstakingly wrapped in bamboo leaves and secured with bamboo fibers. Like any great holiday treat banh chung takes time, often over 10 hours total, to prepare. Regionally, the cakes are square in the northern part of Vietnam, based on the ancient Vietnamese conception of a square earth while in the south; the cakes are round in shape.
Preparing to eat these cakes is a bit like unwrapping a gift. The cakes will be so light and spongy that they’re better cut with thread than with a knife. Made with just a handful of ingredients, these cakes are are often cut into wedges or slices and sprinkled with sugar. Other times it’s sliced and pan-fried. However it is served, biting into banh chung is an experience all of its own.
2. Thit Dong (Frozen Meat)
Thit Dong is part of the northern cuisine and uses the last frozen days of winter to create a perfect dish to welcome spring. This dish is a mixture of meats, chicken, pork, pork skin all simmered together. Next the covered pot is taken outside to freeze naturally. As the meat freezes, leaving a thin layer of fat rises to the top and, as the pot warms and cools throughout the days, the condensation inside the pot creates another layer of texture and flavor.
3. Dua Hanh (Pickled Onions)
It’s almost unthinkable to eat banh chung or thit dong without pickled onions, dua hanh, one of the other must-haves on any Tet table. These delicious tidbits aren’t something you can just whip up at a moment’s notice. These onions take more than three weeks to prepare, but they’re worth it. Sometimes root vegetables, cabbage, small leeks, and other vegetables are pickled along with the onions. With a sweet and sour flavor, tinged with just enough spice, these onions are a tremendous juxtaposition to the delightful greasiness of some of the other Tet dishes.
4. Nem ran (Fried Spring Roll)
These wonderful treats aren’t reserved for Tet alone, but nem ran are never left off the table. A mixture of lean pork, shrimp or crab meat, mushrooms, onions, bean sprouts, and more are mixed and then rolled in rice paper before frying. These rolls are served with fish sauce and lettuce providing a beautiful mix of hot and cool.
5. Mut (candied fruits)
In between meals, when guests arrive and tea is served, beautiful boxes highlight an even more beautiful assortment of dried fruits and seeds. Mut trays are assembled and served only for Tet. The mix is varied and depends on the tastes of the household but can include ginger, carrot, coconut, pineapple, pumpkin, lotus seed, star fruit, sweet potato, pumpkin, sunflower, and watermelon seeds.
6. Xoi Gac (Sticky Rice with baby jackfruit)
Although there are several types of sticky rice (xoi) served during Tet, xoi gac is the favorite. This tasty dish mixes sticky rice with baby jackfruit giving the dish its trademark red color. The color makes it a favorite offering for Tet and weddings, symbolizing luck and achievement. Some cooks make it more savory, and others sweet, but either way it tastes amazing, especially when served with thit dong and banh chung.
7. Nom (Vietnamese Sweet and Sour Grated Salad)
Like the pickled onions and vegetables, nom is a crisp, fresh addition to a menu full of rich flavors. Called goi in the southern part of Vietnam, there are many variations on this dish. It can be made with grated turnip, cabbage, papaya, sliced cucumber, and grated boiled pork. In addition sometimes they include carrots, slices of hot chili, roasted nuts. The ingredients are then soaked in vinegar, sugar, garlic, and hot chili. Together all of the fresh flavors make a fantastic addition to any Tet meal. The salad can help prepare your stomach to eat even more of the other Tet dishes.
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There are other dishes that families may add in to their Lunar New Year menus, but these are the core of the celebratory meals. Knowing these as the favorite dishes, many of these items, especially banh chung, are left at the altars and graves of ancestors, along with fruit and other items, to honor them, a happy new year for the living and the dead. Celebrate the new year the Vietnamese way by trying each of these delectable offerings.