Some cultural tidbits to give you an insight into the celebration of Lunar New Year in Vietnam.
1. It's called Tet
The Lunar New Year in Vietnam is called Tet. Traditional Asian astronomy and astrology use the phases of the Moon to determine the month which has approximately 29 days. That is why the Lunar New Year doesn’t begin on the same day as the Gregorian January 1st. Usually the Lunar New Year falls between January and February of the solar calendar. Countries throughout East Asia that have used the lunar calendar in the past still celebrate this tradition. On this list we can count in China, Korea, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam (and that’s why we have this article). Japan doesn’t celebrate this tradition despite a history of using lunar calendar. And by not celebrate, I mean the Lunar New Year doesn’t make it into national holidays for the Japanese. However, a part of the population still hosting feasts and parties for this occasion, after work I mean.
In Vietnam, Tet is a period that last from the 1st to the 10th of the new year. Children and adults usually have a Tet holiday week which lasts from 7 to 10 days depends on whether the 7th day of the Lunar New Year falls on the beginning or the end of a week (big up if the 7th day falls on a Friday, we get to enjoy a bonus week-end :D). Although the celebration period doesn’t last long, the preparation for it takes 1 to 2 months to be completed. And that’s what makes this celebration so special and exciting. You should visit Vietnam in this preparation period to see and feel the festive atmosphere: everything is bright and new and there’s always smile, music and laughter on every corner of the streets.
2. Time for make over
The new year comes with new things: new look, new clothes, new house items, new decoration style… Everything should be bought and prepared before the New Year begins, it’s enough to keep you busy for weeks. More over, it renews your spirit too with the joy of shredding the old skin and be a brand new you, to forget about the obstacles of last year and be hopeful for a bright new beginning. The new year brings with it new hopes for good things to come, so you better be prepared for it right? You may be surprised by how a pair of new shoes or an artful figurine can alter your state of mind. Have you heard about the Kon Mari method of tidying? About how you should discard the old clothes that don’t bring you joy? It implies that used items carry with it essence of the owner and you should only keep the items of which you’re content. On the same note, a brand new item is like a bland page that you can write on with whatever hope you have for the new year. By now I should clarify that it doesn’t mean a whole new wardrobe. Usually people only buy several set of clothes to wear on the first days (1st to 4th) of Tet.
For the house, there should be a whole deep cleaning. Feng Shui principles believe that dusty old corners carry negative energy, and that’s a no-no for the New Year. So one week before the 1st, every corner of the house should be wiped clean, from the windows’ frames to kitchen props, the rule is simple: leave no stone unturned i.e. wash, clean and wipe until squeaky clean. Why just writing about this leaves me exhausted, I don’t even hope to understand, really. Every year my family would do this whole house cleaning, and it would always be a fun experience as we team up to do the tasks together. Although exhausting, there was always laughter and lovely snacks.
3. Plants and flowers symbolize abundance
House decoration needs live plants and flowers as they stand for luck and abundance that the new year will bring. So the more plants and flowers you have the better. There are 2 absolutely types of flowers that every house strives to have for the occasion: in Northern Vietnam it’s cherry blossoms and in the South it’s Vietnamese ochna. Branches full of blossoms come in all shapes and forms would be sold at Tet markets, waiting to be brought home to show the style and taste of the house’s owner. Desirably all the flower buds should blossom at the 1st day of the New Year. Since plants and flowers are of great demand at the New Year, growing and shaping these plants is an important business for Tet.
4. Tet markets
You can find at the usual markets all kinds of things for Tet from clothes, furniture, kitchen props to food. This is the time of the year where everything that is worth selling can disappear so quickly that their price just accelerates by sound’s speed. Because there is so much things to buy, people usually return to the markets several times before they can stock up everything they need. It is when a good relationship with sellers can make life so much easier ;).
When it comes to plants, there are exclusive Tet markets just for them. As explained above, plants and flowers are of high demand so the best, most beautiful will be on display 2 weeks before the 1st of the New Year. At these markets, you can find all kinds of plants from the small interior plants to big ones that measure 2 m (6ft5). On the night of New Year’s Eve, if there are unsold plants left, they will be sold at half-price or even at the cheapest price as vendors want to wrap up business and go home before the New Year begins at midnight.
5. New Year’s Eve is when the labor ends, well, sort of
All those times spent on preparation will end on New Year’s Eve, but only at midnight. Since most Vietnamese still follow the tradition of setting up altar for ancestors at New Year’s Eve, it becomes the last of before-Tet rituals. The set up altar has flowers, food and burning incense sticks. The food of New Year’s Eve is usually a whole boiled chicken, sticky or glutinous rice, some sweet treats like biscuits/cake and sweets. The altar is set up from 11pm or 11:30pm to midnight.
At midnight, Buddhist families sometimes will visit temples to pray and to bring home a branch of flowers or a cut of sugarcane sold on the streets as a symbol of luck. On New Year’s Eve, even after midnight, if people choose to go out instead of staying at home and preparing for sleep, there are still many go-see sites. Folks will be able to buy lucky sugarcane or street snacks, often plant-based. Only at around 3 am that people start to go home. Some choose to stay at home though, because there is an important tradition that they observe on the 1st day of Tet.
6. The first visit tradition
It is believed that the first person ever to set foot inside the home on the 1st day of Tet can bring extreme luck to the family. The tradition is called ‘xong dat’ which is an inauguration of the house on the new year. Usually the procedure is like this: First Feng Shui principles and Eastern astrology are applied to find the birth year (or years) that is most compatible with that of the breadwinner of the house. After this element is known, members of the family will consult their entourage to find a person who has this birth year and who is willing to visit their house on the 1st. Most people are happy to do this unless they’re requested elsewhere. This tradition is respected strictly by business folks.
The opposite of this tradition is observed as well, that is if your birth year isn’t compatible with the family, better not visiting their home before the inauguration can take place. Usually people avoid visiting their entourage in the early morning of the 1st . Planning a visit after 10am is ok or better yet, they consult with the owner.
7. Traditional dishes differ from North to South
Now we come to one of the best parts of Tet: the food. Tet dishes range from heavy, salty, rich to fresh, light and sweet. Usually there is a combination of both heavy and light dishes. Since no market, or supermarket for that matter, will open for the first 3 days of Tet, to have enough to entertain guests, large quantity of heavy and rich dishes are made because they are easily preserved. And since Vietnamese cuisine strives for balance in all things, fresh and light dishes are incorporated to provide anti-inflammatory relief. Among the traditional dishes, there is this meat jelly that is a must in Northern Test feast along with sticky rice.
For Southern feast, it’s caramelized pork and eggs and bitter melon soup. (Check out my recipe for this healthy bitter melon soup here). Another important Tet food is savory cake that is made from sticky rice, pork belly and mung beans wrapped in banana or arrowroot leaves. This cake has 2 variations. The original is the square shape cake called ‘Banh chung’ and originated from the North, in the South people make the same cake but in cylindrical form. That is ‘Banh tet’. Both are a must for the New Year and are often served with pickled veggies.
Sweet treats are candied veggies and fruits such as candied coconut, squash, tomato, tamarind, pineapple, etc. Toasted seeds and pickled or dried fruits are also favored as snacks. Apparently people eat and eat again at the New Year. Only after the 4th when visits die down that the meals return to normal.
8. The first days of Tet is for family
The 1st day is always time to visit parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. And since old Vietnamese families are big, it may take 3 whole days to visit all the family, to eat, drink, talk and sing karaoke. Vietnamese tradition values family and relationships between parents and children, and among siblings, so it’s of no wonder that family is a priority at the New Year. It’s a time to honor the beloved family members who have passed away and to reinforce family ties. Usually the 4th and 5th are devoted to friends and neighbors. The shops and stores start to open on the 4th too, so there are plenty of places to go chill with mates.
9. Giving and receiving a small sum of money is a tradition
It’s not about money but lucky money. It’s the giver’s wish for good things to come to the receiver. Usually children receive a small amount of money wrapped in red envelope accompanied by best wishes from adults. When the children reach adulthood at 18, or when they finish school and have a job, it’s their turn to give lucky money to their younger siblings and cousins and so on. This tradition is called ‘li xi’ and it is not limited to children either as old parents and grandparents also receive red envelope from their children and grandchildren. It’s about the red envelope, the symbol of luck ;).
10. Only the best wishes applied
Tet is also the time of giving and receiving best wishes. And it’s not just any best wishes, you really have to give wishes according to the age, profession and preference of the receiver. From good health, long life to success and happiness, the Vietnamese language is so rich that the wishes can be formed as simple, common phrases or they can be developed and rhymed into a sonnet. These sophisticated wishes are often engraved or written down on paintings to serve as gifts as well. At the new year when Vietnamese visit family and friends, they first wish them ‘chuc mung nam moi’ which means ‘happy new year’ and upon leaving, they will give their most sincere, heartfelt wishes. Giving New Year’s wishes has become an art, a savoir-faire that children are taught from a young age so as they grow up, they will continue to celebrate these traditions which add value to their life.
I hope you enjoy the article, although it’s too short to capture all traditions and cultural tidbits of the great Tet, it is a tad too long for a ‘10 things’ article. Let me finish it by wishing you all a new year filled with laughter, joy and strength to rise above any hurdle presents on your journey.
Chuc mung nam moi! <3
Zazulete Ynn Anuca Romanta Ion
Dark, mysterious, cold days.
Cheeks pinched by burning winds.
Jingles and bells.
Frozen hands, feet and noses.
I already feel nostalgic for them, but they are almost gone. And spring must not find us like weaklings. Like grumpy bears stumbling off our bed of leaves. Let's fight the Ice Queen with a special, magical salad that will restore our strength and vitality for crossing another bridge of seasons. Packed with 13 miraculous immune boosters (a mystical number of rebirth), it will not be just science for you, but art as well: the colors and tastes of the February Queen will become a synesthetic feast. You will become happy while preparing, eating, absorbing and remembering it.
INGREDIENTS (serves 1-2)
60g smoked salmon
1-2 hard boiled eggs
50g goat cheese
1 small carrot
1 red pepper
Extra virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil
3 tsp yogurt
½ tsp turmeric
Rucola (arugula, rocket salad)
Cleanse and replace. Due to its antioxidant properties, rucola is a powerful detox cruciferous, cleansing the residues of the stagnant processes in our body after a long, more sedentary, slow-metabolism winter, and giving a boost to our immune system with its high content of chlorophyll, Vitamin C, copper and zinc.
Orange Ninja. β-Carotene, our main source of Vitamin A, is one of the main stimulators of T-cells production, the bricks of our immune system.
The strength of the upstream fish. The salmon's life is an amazing story of survival, with the adult salmons traveling from the sea towards the very source of fresh water, upstream, as a perilous journey of more than 1600 km, where the successful female lays in her nest thousands of eggs for the male to fertilize, and then dies. After a few months, baby salmons, when strong enough, will make the same journey downstream, from one world to another, only to return again for the same cycle. We honor the salmon by understanding how precious its nutritious properties are for our immune system, with a rich content of Omega 3, protein, Vitamin E, D and calcium.
Complexity and essence. Apart from being a major source of protein, fatty acids and a veritable vitamin complex (B complex, E, A), eggs from free range hens are also a rare source of selenium and zinc, which are part of the armor of our immune system.
Noblesse oblige. Goat cheese is another important source of selenium, along with the probiotic value of noble cheese mold, which acts like a "trainer" of our immune system against bacterial infections.
Red bell pepper
Surprise! Bell peppers can contain a double quantity of Vitamin C compared to citrus fruits, while red bell peppers are at the same time another important source of β-Carotene.
Red killer. A most powerful antioxidant, pomegranate juice and seeds are also a killer anti-microbial, bacteria and fungal weapon, along with their anti-inflammatory properties. Do not spit the seeds! Together they make for a super food of the cold season, a red alert - first defense of our body, with their mix of antioxidants and Vitamin C, B, K complex.
Extra virgin olive oil
Liquid gold. An entire novel can be written about the history, uses and multiple properties of olive oil, with its multitude of benefits for our health. Among those, due to its powerhouse antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, extra virgin olive oil is also a classic immune booster and complex protector of our body on cellular, but also skin level.
Secrets of the seed. One of the amazing characteristics of grapeseed oil is its high content of Vitamin E, leading to an increased production of natural killer cells, T and B cells, our tiny immune warriors.
You know! The happy sour sun drop is pure Vitamin C, and packed with anti-microbial and antioxidant properties.
White medicine. A small quantity of live culture yogurt every day, through its probiotic qualities, insures the healthy bacterial balance of our intestinal tract and stimulates the increased production of leucocytes.
Wonder. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric has been recently found to be a a major productivity enhancer of the whole range of white cells, while it has been used traditionally to reduce fever for millenia.
Hot and cold. And finally, to spice it up, we will use this potent source of Vitamin C, antioxidants and β-Carotene, which contributes to building the mucus membrane protecting our body against bacteria and viruses.
Mix the grated carrot with whole rucola leaves, sliced red pepper, salmon and goat cheese and dress with a dash of lemon juice and zest, and olive (or grapeseed) oil. Or both.
Add the pomegranate seeds.
In a separate dressing bowl, mix the yogurt with the rest of the lemon juice, oil, salt, pepper, turmeric and chili flakes. Add the hard-boiled eggs in the salad and the dressing and mix, or, if you prefer, you can mix the dressing in and add the eggs afterwards. Spice up the eggs with a little more chili.
Oh and guess what? It is the 13th today.
May you bloom like spring!
Have you heard through the grapevine that the Lunar New Year is near? It will be on the 16 February this year, only one week from now. In Vietnam, this occasion is called Tet which is a celebration that lasts more than 2 weeks (1 week before the New Year and 10 days after it). These days whenever I call my parents in Vietnam, they’re always busy preparing for this big yearly event. People usually have to prepare for it one month in advance, sometimes even 2 months. Why all the fuss, you may ask? Well, imagine for 10 days straight, at least 10 guests, adults and children alike, will visit your house each day. Won’t you need to clean every corner of your house? Won’t you need to buy enough food (more food than your guests can eat, that is) to be a good host? And that’s just a part of the preparation. So 1 month may not be enough for you to do all the much needed work. I will write about this Vietnamese special occasion in my next article. Today I want to present to you a recipe, a Southern Vietnamese traditional food for the New Year: stuffing meatballs bitter melon soup.
The traditional dishes of Tet often have a special meaning. For bitter melon soup, the meaning lies in its name. The Southern Vietnamese name for bitter melon is ‘kho qua’ which sounds like ‘burden shall pass’. And so the dish represents a wish for last year’s difficulties to pass and hope for a new positive beginning. Furthermore, bitter melon soup happens to have a delicious yet light taste which will lift up our spirit after savoring other heavy Tet dishes. Meaning and taste asides, bitter melon soup is too healthy a dish to not incorporate it into the food fest.
About bitter melon: You may have heard about the many benefits of bitter melon (or bitter squash/gourd/cucumber). It is not a vegetable but a fruit actually. The ripper it is the more bitter the taste and the less crunchy the texture, thus people often eat bitter melon when it’s still young. Bitter melon is quite nutritious with lots of vitamin C (much more than cucumber), A, K and dietary fiber. Not to mention Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc and Manganese. It is anti-inflammatory (yoohoo!), antioxidant (yoohoo bis!) and antibacterial. Among the many benefits of bitter melon, it is best known to lower blood sugar level and thus is good to treat diabetes. It strengthens the liver, aids the body in releasing toxins. That of course leads to glowing, beautiful skin. Not only that, it is especially beneficial for people who have skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis. The only caution when consuming bitter melon is for pregnant ladies: it can cause bleeding so consult with doctor first. Also, the laxative component in bitter melon can cause headache and diarrhea if you’re not used to it. I’ve never known anyone who suffered from these effects but everyone’s different, so if you try bitter melon for the first time, consume a small portion just to be sure then gradually grow the portion. Once you get used to it, you can consume 2 bitter melons a day without any problem.
Now that we know how beneficial bitter melon is, let’s incorporate it into our meals. It won’t be a chore, really, as bitter melon is quite delicious once you get used to it. How does it taste like? When eaten fresh, bitter melon is a bit bitter but also watery and crunchy. When cooked, the bitter taste is more highlighted and the texture turns soft, like squash, but not mushy. Bitter melon is the kind of food that grows on you. You may not like it at first, but over time you get addicted to it.
If you try bitter melon for the first time, I recommend you to make this stuffing meatballs bitter melon soup. This is a great way to get children to try bitter melon too. Here’s a way: The stuffing meatballs are just too delicious for children to turn away from, so when they are busy munching on those meatballs, just gobble down the bitter melon and tell them how delicious and nutritious it is. Make it really convincing. If they ask for a taste, give them a spoonful of meatball with a small chunk of bitter melon. Do you get the gist of it? Over time the taste will grow on you and your children. You may then want to try other recipes with bitter melon. It can be made into salad or it can be stir-fried. I once tried wild bitter melon pickled and it’s one of the best pickles I’ve ever tasted. I digressed a bit here but just so you know, bitter melon is not intimidating.
Back to the traditional soup, stuffed bitter melon soup has the sweetness from meatballs, the fresh and slightly bitter taste of bitter melon. Unlike other squash soup, this one really needs the garnish herbs which are spring onion and cilantro to be complete. The soup is meant to be eaten with rice and a main dish. Here is pork cutlets recipe and lemongrass chili chicken as ideas for your main dish. Now let’s get to the recipe, shall we?
Ingredients: (for 3 servings)
200 gr ground pork
1,2 l water or chicken stock
2 bitter melons of 250 gr (fresh or frozen)
50 gr Vietnamese glass noodle/vermicelli (soaked in warm water for 10 minutes then minced)
20 gr dried wood ear mushrooms (soaked in warm water for 10 minutes then minced)
2 tsps of salt
1 pinch of ground black pepper
4 spring onions (heads and green parts separated, heads are minced while the green parts are then sliced thinly)
1 shallot (minced)
10 gr or a handful of cilantro (sliced thinly)
For the bitter melons, if you use the frozen ones, they’re already well prepared so just defrost, wash and dry then cut them into portions of 3 cm long.
If you use fresh bitter melons, remove both ends then cut them into portions of 3 cm long. Next use a spoon to scoop out all the white parts along with the seeds. Keep only the green portions/cylinders.
To prepare the stuffing, mix the ground pork with minced wood ear mushrooms and vermicelli, minced spring onion heads, minced shallot, ½ tsp of salt, 1 pinch of ground black pepper. Mix them well by hand. When it’s done, stuff the bitter melon cylinders with this mixture. Push the stuffing tightly, make sure to leave no air in the stuffing. When you finish stuffing the bitter melons, you will still have stuffing left, make them into meatballs and set aside.
In a pot, pour in 1,2 l of water or chicken stock, add 1 1/2 tsp of salt and bring to a boil. Lightly drop the stuffed bitter melons into the boiling water, set the heat to medium-high. Cook for 10 minutes then drop the meatballs into the boiling soup and cook for another 10 minutes. During this cooking process, the nutrition from the stuffed melon is infused into the soup. The liquid soup will eventually turn a slight brown color too. You can then turn off the heat and add spring onion and cilantro garnish directly into the pot or put the soup into serving bowls and sprinkle garnish on top.
There are versions where people use whole bitter melon without cutting it into cylinders. The whole bitter melon looks great but you will of course need to cut it once served. I also see versions where people use fish sauce instead of salt to cook the soup. I don’t use fish sauce to cook this soup because then the bitter melons have a sour taste.
The point of making more stuffing than bitter melons is to make the soup sweeter and to prevent the case where children eat all the stuffing meatballs and you’re left with all the hollow bitter melons :D. When you make more stuffing than bitter melons, everyone gets their fill, yay!
To bring the soup to another level, serve it with dipping fish sauce. If you cook bitter melon soup with fish sauce, the bitter melon turns a bit sour but dipping fish sauce, on the other hand, elevates the dish. Nothing is as satisfying as dipping those meatballs into the sweet and sour fish sauce. So make the dipping fish sauce with the ratio of 1 fish sauce : 1 sugar : 4 water : ¾ lemon juice, add minced garlic and chili to your taste. Now enjoy the soup that is as healthy as it is delicious!
by Zazulete Ynn Anuca Romanta Ion
Hot and cheesy, Bouyourdi is a traditional Greek appetizer (meze), so perfect for the last cold winter days and a marvelous dish for tasting a fine quality olive oil. Fast and easy, it will make you discover a new comfort food that is likely to become a classic, allowing you to savor the very bricks of Greek cuisine: feta cheese, oregano and fresh tomatoes and peppers.
INGREDIENTS (for 2-4 servings)
1 medium red pepper
6-7 cherry tomatoes
1 chili pepper
100g melting cheese of your liking (or Kefalotyri)
extra virgin olive oil
grilled bread slices sprinkled with oregano and extra virgin olive oil
a few basil leaves for decoration (optional)
Traditionally, you need a clay cooking pot for this dish, with a lid, but you may use any ovenproof pot that you can cover.
All you need to do is to break the feta in pieces and slice the tomatoes, pepper and the chili and to form layers in the clay pot. Start with some olive oil, then add a layer of feta, then a layer of tomatoes, sliced pepper and chili, onto which you sprinkle black pepper, oregano and chili flakes, and another dash of olive oil. I like this dish hot, both ways (as temperature and spiciness) but you may adjust it to your taste by choosing a medium spicy chili or drop the chili flakes altogether.
Normally, you will have 2 layers of cheese and 2 layers of veggies, for this quantity, each one dressed with oregano and olive oil. The top layer is the melting cheese.
Cover the pot and cook at 220°C for 25-30 minutes, until the cheeses melt together with the sweet tomato and pepper juices.
Grill the bread and when hot, sprinkle it with delicious olive oil and more oregano.
To be served hot (careful with the fingers!) with the crispy, perfumed bread.
Too easy! :-) But extra delicious!
Cover photo: Zazulete Ynn Anuca Romanta Ion
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!