Tet means a lot of different things: getting your house in order for the New Year, your mother hassling you about marrying within the year, family reunion, dusting down your favorite ao dai, luck, temple visits, prosperity, flowers, red envelopes, spending time with the children, but perhaps one thing that matters more than anything else is stuffing your face with as much food as possible, after all the full name of the festival is Tet Nguyen Dan, which translates as “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.” So let’s talk feasting!
Food is central to Vietnamese culture and is even more so during the biggest holiday of the day. On Lunar New Year’s Eve (dem 30) households across the country cook up a feast as offerings to place on their alters. This tradition is believed to invite the spirits of gods and ancestors to the home, who will bring blessings and fortunes with them. Once prayers have been made and the incense has burnt out, usually by lunch on New Year’s Day (mung 1), the dishes can be taken down to enjoy. While varying by region or even household, choices in Hanoi usually cater to its cold climate typical of this time of the year. Here are eight of the capital’s staples – a balance of starch, meat and greens following the “four dishes and four plates” principle rooted in the four seasons, directions and pillars of the house.
Banh chung (square sticky cake)
A glossy green banh chung is the emblem of the Hanoi Tet meal. Legend says it was a royal creation dating back centuries and made with gratitude for the harvests from the land. Glutinous rice, fatty pork and mung bean are spread evenly then wrapped tightly into squares in a phrynium leaf, giving the cake a natural dye. These days you can easily find a vegetarian version without the meat. Cooking banh chung with a wood fire can take up to half a day, so families in the city no longer treasure the tradition of making it from scratch anymore, but those who still do treat it as a time to gather with loved ones. This delicacy can also be enjoyed crispy fried, usually right before it goes bad.
Dua hanh (pickled cabbage and onions)
To combat these glutinous meals that leave your stomach on edge and a bit stressed, don’t fear because dua hanh is here, the Hanoian solution to feeling stuffed. It’s delightfully sour, and that sourness is supposed to cleanse your palate and help with digestion.
Ga luoc (boiled chicken)
There are many different ways to cook chicken, but for special occasions like Tet, boiling takes the crown. Simple and utterly delicious. Chicken in Hanoi tends to be very fresh indeed, as anyone woken up by a plucky fowl at 3.45 a.m. will know too damn well.
Native breeds are much preferred for their tender meat. Chicken is usually unseasoned but submerged in salt and ginger water. It should be boiled whole and until the skin is golden. The dish is then topped off with lime leaf strands and accompanied by an aromatic lime and salt dip. A seemingly simple recipe that creates wonders in the mouth.
Xoi gac (red sticky rice)
Xoi gac is also made with colored sticky rice like banh chung but rocks a bright red from the gac fruit instead. While it can be eaten for breakfast on pretty much every other day, this xoi makes an exceptionally fitting dish for Tet since red symbolizes luck and fortune to the Vietnamese. There is a hint of pleasant sweetness to it.
Gio cha (Vietnamese cold cuts)
Gio cha is finely minced meat typically wrapped and steamed in banana leaf, and the type of meat used hails from land to sea. A ubiquitous choice for Tet is smooth-cut gio lua, consisting of lean pork, black pepper, fish sauce and other seasonings. You’ve probably come across a lot of it in banh mi. Gio cha is also believed to bring prosperity for the New Year. Oh, and it tastes pretty fantastic too.
Nem (fried spring rolls)
Making nem requires meticulous work. The standard filling in Hanoi is chopped pork, onions, carrots, mushrooms, wood ear, vermicelli and spring onion, whisked with egg. Spoonfuls of the mixture are then wrapped tight in rice paper and deep fried, calling for the name spring roll. The dish isn’t complete without a sweet and savory fish sauce-based dip. Ngon!
Canh bong (pork rind soup) or canh mang (bamboo shoots soup)
These soups are equally popular and it’s really up to each household’s preferences to decide between them (or have both if you are feeling fancy). If you haven’t already heard, bong is more than a way U.S. teenagers get high on spring break, but in fact a superb dried pork rind, or pig skin, with an unmistakable chewy texture yet light flavor. And while canh bong is usually served with vegetables, broccoli being a firm favorite, in canh mang it is bamboo shoots that act as the source of fiber, and it often comes with wonderfully gelatinous and fatty pork trotters–because pig’s feet taste a whole lot better than they sound.
Nom (Vietnamese salad)
Like most salads, nom makes a great appetizer. Hanoians like to use sliced kohlrabi, carrot, cucumber, green papaya with herbs and crushed peanuts. Like dua hanh, nom being sweet and savory helps balance out strong flavors from meat dishes. Nom, Nom, Nom.
And there it is, a fantastic feast fit for a much storied and ancient capital. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Hanoi Tet dinner this year, grab the opportunity and go, just remember your table manners and you will be set for a wonderful time, filled with gastronomic delights.
Chuc mung nam oi!
Words by Jennifer Nguyen.
Photos taken by Thanh Vu
Main image courtesy of afamily