In traditional culture of Tết, or Vietnamese New Year, cuisine has always been one of the most special aspects. Tết’s dishes are not merely for a feast celebrating the arrival of a new year, they also convey various traditional and cultural values in the national character, as a spiritual heritage passed down from generation to generation.
In the memories of many, Tết’s flavors consisted in the family’s preparation of a pot of “thịt kho” (meat, eggs stewed in coconut juice and fish sauce) or “bánh chưng” (sticky rice with meat or bean boiled and wrapped in “dong” leaves) days prior to the New Year’s Eve, and in trays of food offered up to ancestors with the dusky burned incense on the Eve, in serenity and gratitude at the transitional moment of Nature. Tết’s flavor also lay in the family reunions on the first day of the new year, where the whole family talked merrily of their happiness and troubles of the past year and their intentions in the new one.
Particular foods for Tết varied in each region. In Northern Vietnam, there was usually “thịt đông” (pork knuckle, pig skin, wood-ear fungi, peppercorns cooked into a gelatinous dish, cut into cubes and served cold), which could hardly be found on the serving trays in other regions. In addition, people in the North usually ate “bánh chưng” with “dưa hành” (pickled onion and cabbage), as well as “cá kho riềng” (fish poached with galingale), “giò thủ” (pork head, mushrooms, with peppercorns, shallots stir-fried then tightly packed in a mold) chả quế (pork tenderloin crushed, flavored with fish sauce and cinnamon powder, steamed before fried), “ninh măng” (made by stewing bamboo shoots), “chả đẫy” (shrimp, pork, mushrooms, carrots, onions diced, stir-fried and wrapped in a thin slice of scrambled eggs into the shape of feed bags).
Southern region’s familiar delicacies included “thịt kho hột vịt” (meat, eggs stewed in coconut juice and fish sauce), “canh khổ qua dồn thịt” (meat-stuffed bitter melon soup, whose Vietnamese name suggests a wish for all troubles to pass with the passing year), bánh tét (which is the cylindrical counterpart of the square-shaped “bách chưng”) eaten with dưa giá (pickled bean sprouts) and “dưa kiệu” (pickled small leeks), “gỏi tôm thịt” (a Vietnamese salad of fresh turnip, subterranean lotus stem, cabbage, cucumber, meat and shrimp), “chả giò” (spring rolls), nem (an indigenous sausage), etc.
In Central Vietnam,“bánh chưng”, “bánh tét”, as well as “bắp bò dầm mặn” (beef shank flavored with cinnamon and star aniseed, boiled then soaked 5-7 days in a mixture of fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and chili),“thịt heo ngâm nước mắm” (pork soaked in fish sauce), “gà bóp rau răm” (boiled chicken mixed with hot mint, pepper, chili, sugar and lemon) “nem chả Huế” ( Huế’s sausage), etc. were all popular.
As time flows, people today, leading a hectic life, can hardly take meticulous care of Tết’s foods as they traditionally did. Since workers usually get the holidays off work only 2 days before the Eve, many do not have enough time to prepare an elaborate soup of bamboo shoots. And in the cramped and crowded cities, it is not easy to find a small courtyard to build a fire for a smoking pot of “bánh chưng”. People have been made flexible to adapt to the changing way of life, while preserving traditional values.
Therefore, these days we can find many of Tết’s specialties prepared in advance, from “giò”, “chả”, “dưa kiệu” to “bánh chưng, bánh tét”. Even “canh măng” are made ready, in big markets, to be bought and warmed.
An exchange of delicacies among the three regions is taking place. For instance, “bắp bò ngâm nước mắm”, originally from Central Vietnam, is now occasionally found on the serving trays in the North or South. Moreover, they may also be added with several exotic Western dishes such as sausage, sauté diced beef, etc. Tết’s dishes are transformed by each family for their preference and convenience. Still, Tết’s traditional foods are always there.
However those particular dishes have changed, they are not only a meal but also a representation of the spiritual values of Tết, a harmony of Nature’s flavors in cuisine, an occasion for family reunions. There may be alterations, but as long as those values remain unchanged over the course of years, Tết will always be complete.