Traditional meals for Tet

Giò chả, bánh chưng, bánh tét, dưa món,... cũng là những món quà được dùng để biếu Tết cho người thân trong gia đình (Hình: Ngọc Lan/Người Việt)

Titi Mary Tran/ Nguoi Viet English

Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year, is this weekend – Friday through Sunday.  Relatives from overseas and out of states are arriving to visit loved ones and gather around their “anchored” home to review the year past and welcome the one ahead.

What are you going to present to your family?  What do you have to share with them? And just as important: What will you feed them?

We can help with that.  Try some of these terrific ideas and add your personal touch.

Sticky rice cakes (Bánh Chưng, Bánh Tét)

Bánh chưng/ bánh tét can be left out at room temperature for 24 hours according to SB 969. (Photo: Linh Nguyen/Người-Việt)

Rice has traditionally been the main crop in Vietnam.  Its history dated back to hundreds of years.  There is even a legendary tale that explains the representation of these rice cakes, like that of “Sự tích bánh chưng bánh dày.”

Consisting of sticky rice, mung beans, pork belly and spices, these sticky rice cakes usually are deep-water boiled for 12 to 14 hours.  The square ones wrapped in leaves represent the earth and the circle white rice cakes represent heaven.  The long, cylinder-shaped rice cakes (bánh tét) wrapped in banana leaves have their roots in Champa culture of early Cambodia.  These sticky rice cakes signify the kinship protection of parents (rice on the outside) to their children (the filling in the center).

Pickled shallots and vegetables (Dưa hành, Dưa món)

Dried daikon radish, red chili pepper and carrot in sugary fish sauce – Dưa món. (Photo: Titi Mary Tran)

Accompanying the sticky rice cakes like that of yin and yang balance are the pickle shallots and vegetables.  Crunchy, sour and spicy, the pickled shallots enhance the taste and help with digestion when eaten with hearty sticky rice cakes.  Pickled vegetables often consists of dried green papayas, sun-dried carrots and dried daikon submerged in sugary vinaigrette fish sauce for several days before use.

Meat cakes (Giò lụa, giò thủ)

Pork cake

Different from giò lụa, which is cooked by boiling method, giò-thủ is prepared by stir-frying pork condiments with pepper, black fungus and shiitake mushrooms.  Made with fresh pork or beef paste, mixed with whole pepper and fish sauce, giò-lụa has softer texture compared to giò-thủ, which is crunchier and more flavorful.  Both meat cakes are wrapped in banana leaves in long cylinder forms.

Boiled chicken (Gà luộc)

Boiled chicken. (Photo courtesy: amthucnamchau.org)

People believe chicken brings luck and fortune in the new year.  So a boiled chicken is one meal that cannot be absent from the ancestor altar, where Vietnamese usually pay tribute to their ancestors by presenting a good harvest and asking them to look over their descendants in the year ahead.

A good boiled chicken has non-scratched, crunchy, fresh and shiny yellow skin when done.  Ginger, star anise and hoa tiêu (pepper cloves) are often flavored in boiling water.

Fish sauce marinated pork

Fish sauce marinated pork. (Photo: Titi Mary Tran)

This is a favorite of many.  Pork, with balanced skin, fat and meat, are boiled and then marinated in sugary fish sauce.  This meal can be eaten by itself or used as a main tasty filling of spring roll wrap for a quick and easy Tet meal.

Bitter melon soup (Canh khổ-qua)

Bitter-melon soup. (Photo: Titi Mary Tran)

Khổ-qua’s literal translation is overcoming (qua) difficulty (khổ). Vietnamese southerners believe eating this soup will make all the hardships and tough issues a thing of the past so that they can welcome the new year with a fresh, clean plate.  The soup is made with meat-filled bitter melon cooked in bone stock.  The soup in known to good for a healthy body.

Dried shrimp with picked leek (Củ kiệu, tôm khô)

Pickled leek. (Photo: Titi Mary Tran)

This dish is simple and a must-have for Tet.  Clean white chive bulbs are sundried before being marinated with sugar.  The pickled bulbs are ready to eat after 10 days of marinating in an air-tight jar.

Chinese inspired meat stew (Thịt kho tàu)

Chinese inspired meat stew. (Photo: Dan Nguyen)

Given that Vietnam was occupied by China for a thousand years, the food understandably has become one the the stables for the Vietnamese in Lunar New Year.  The meat is stewed before boiled eggs are added.  It is often eaten with white rice.

Last but not least, Hue-style pickled shrimp (Tôm chua Huế)

Pickled shrimp Hue’s style. (Photo: Titi Mary Tran)

Aside from the well-known spicy beef noodle soup (bún-bò-Huế) and a variety of rice appetizers, Huế inspires and keeps secrets of many Vietnamese dishes that used to serve the royal family.  This dish is ready to eat when the shrimp turns bright pink color after being marinated with rice water, garlic, bell pepper and galangal root for several days.  This pickled shrimp dish accompanied with other main dishes or wrapped in rice paper with boiled pork and fresh vegetables.