Vietnamese Tet, or Lunar New Year, plays an essential role in Vietnamese culture. It is the occasion for family members to gather, catch up with each other and enjoy good food. A meaningful Tet cannot be completed without feasts full of traditional dishes. Here are the must-try Tet dishes Vietnamese enjoy to celebrate the holiday.
According to Vietnamese legend, King Hung wanted to choose a son to succeed the throne. He summoned all of his sons and said that whoever could bring him the most precious offering to the altar to worship the ancestors would be given the throne.
All of the princes traveled throughout Vietnam in search of the valuable and most exotic foods to offer to their father, except Lang Lieu, the 18th prince, who had no idea where to begin searching.
One night, he dreamed of a genie who told him that "the rice grain is the most precious thing on earth. You use the glutinous rice grain and make round cakes symbolizing the sky and square cakes symbolizing the earth. The square cakes will have fillings made of beans and meat, and you will use green leaves to wrap the cake, symbolizing the love and protection provided by fathers and mothers to their children." When he awoke, Lang Lieu was delighted and prepared the two kinds of cakes instructed by the genie.
When the day of the competition came, King Hung thoroughly examined the offerings of his sons but was not entirely satisfied. However, upon tasting Lang Lieu's cakes and hearing his explanation, the King congratulated and chose him to succeed in his throne. Since then, the King and all of his subjects started making square and round glutinous rice cakes to offer to their ancestors on special occasions and particularly the Tet holidays. Nowadays, these cakes are still a specialty throughout all of Vietnam.
While Banh Chung is popular in the North, Banh Tet frequently appears on the table of South Vietnamese families. They are both made from excellent ingredients that can be easily found in Vietnamese countryside and rural areas: sticky rice, minced mung bean, and fatty pork. Those are the fillings and they can be adjusted depending on the cook’s taste or local preference. The cakes are wrapped in the finest dong leaves (Phrynium placentarium) and bamboo strings. Depending on the size and thickness of the cakes, it can take between 8 - 12 hours of boiling for the cakes to be fully cooked.
Although Banh Chung and Banh Tet seem to share lots of common characteristics, you can tell them apart from first sight: Banh Chung is square, while Banh Tet is cylindrical.
Banh Chung and Banh Tet have different shapes outside but same fillings inside
Sticky Rice Cake is not only a dish to eat in the most important celebrations, but it also creates chances for people to bond with each other. The process of making and cooking Banh Chung and Banh Tet takes a lot of time and effort, so each and every member of the family would need to take part in it. The kids are usually in charge of cleaning the leaves or running simple errands while the women take care of the most delicate part - wrapping the cakes. To have a piece of Sticky Rice Cake on the table, it is a long and challenging task. Therefore, Banh Chung and Banh Tet are also the lessons from Vietnamese ancestors to their descendants about appreciation for food.
An unwrapped Banh Chung (square sticky rice cake)
It is a well-known fact that rice is among the main dishes in Vietnamese family meals. Because of this, there is always at least one dish that has a salty, spicy taste which goes well with the rice. On Vietnamese Tet, in Southern Vietnam, that dish would be Thit Kho Trung.
As one of the must-try Tet dishes, one of the “missions” of Thit Kho Trung is to keep the family full during days of Tet when all markets, stores, and restaurants are closed for the holiday. Grandmas and moms usually cook a huge pot of Thit Kho Trung to eat for days. It would be heated up before every meal, and the taste would remain as delicious as when it was freshly cooked.
The ingredients for this dish do not require much. The eggs can be chicken eggs, duck eggs, or quail eggs. For the pork, the belly part is a must. Not only because it is tasty, but also because the fat can provide more energy which is much needed by farmers who have been working hard relentlessly in the fields. Nowadays, agriculture has no longer played a dominant role in the country’s economy as it used to be, but this traditional dish still has a place in Vietnamese people’s hearts. An indispensable ingredient to make the unique flavor for Thit Kho Trung is coconut juice. Thanks to it, the dish comes out with a naturally smooth sweetness.
The combination of the ingredients makes Thit Kho Trung mouthwatering
Boiled chicken symbolizes prosperity and wellbeing. Starting the new year with a boiled chicken offered to the ancestral Gods on an altar is expected to bring in luck that lasts throughout the year.
A Vietnamese Tet tray in the north will not be complete without a plate of pork sausages, which could be plain pork sausages, cinnamon pork sausage, pig's ear sausage, beef sausages, and sour sausages. These invite happiness and fortune into the house. The sausage made for Tet needs to be especially fresh, dense and easy to slice. Find out more about Vietnamese cold cuts.
Cha Gio is a dish that is loved by many Vietnamese children. The crispy fried rice paper and the delectable fillings made from different ingredients make you unable to stop eating. It can be eaten with fresh Vietnamese vegetables and mixed fish sauce. Thanks to this, this fried dish becomes healthier and even suitable for those who are not a big fan of greasy food.
Cha Gio is always a popular dish in Tet family meals
On regular days apart from Tet holiday, Cha Gio also appears in plenty of Vietnamese daily food such as Bun Cha or Bun Thit Nuong. It is a dish that you should not miss out on in our Saigon Food Tour. See more about Summer Rolls, another wrap-and-roll dish that is popular in lots of major Vietnamese ceremonies.
Forget about all the fried or fatty dish, the Vietnamese Salad would give you a fresh taste this Lunar New Year. There is virtually no traditional recipe for the salad that is exclusively made for Tet but it depends mostly on the cook’s creativity and the available ingredients. The vegetables in the salad are usually thinly sliced. They can be cabbages, morning glory, carrot, banana inflorescence, or green mango. The meat is also varied, pork, beef, chicken, duck, or seafood can all be the great choices. Since boiled chicken is also a traditional Tet dish, the shredded chicken salad is quite more popular during this time of the year.
Goi, or Vietnamese Salad, is a fresh dish for Tet holiday
Vietnamese pickles are the must-try Tet dishes since they either have an exotic, interesting taste or go well with other typical yet greasy holiday dishes. There are many types of pickles which all have a sweet and sour flavor and crunchy texture. Some of the most popular ones are pickled cabbages, pickled onions, and pickled small leeks. While the first one could be found almost all year round and becomes more widely seen around the Lunar New Year, pickled onions and small leeks are the actual signatures of Tet. They are the perfect side dish for the Sticky Rice Cake. However, their scent is quite strong so not everyone can put up with it, especially small kids. With pickled small leek, many people would dip it in soy sauce or eat with century eggs to make it easier to enjoy.
Onions and small leeks are two signature pickles for Tet
Read more about the Wonder of Vietnamese Pickles
Vietnamese Jam is actually candied slices of fruits and vegetables. Almost all families in Vietnam would put a small box which has several different types of jams on the table in their living room during the Tet holiday. It is used to serve the guests who visit their house, which happens a lot at this time of the year. Some of the common types of jam are coconut, pomelo skin, carrot, kumquat, and ginger. They are attractive to both kids and adults since they are colorful and fun to eat.
Besides the jam, dried seeds are also available in the guests-welcoming box. They are exceptional choices of food to eat in Tet when people gather together chatting or playing cards. Watermelon seeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds are the prominent ones. Almond, cashew, and pistachio nuts can also be found in some families that want to have some new, enjoyable food in their house during this special holiday.
Assorted seeds to serve guests to make Tet more enjoyable
During the Lunar New Year, there are many must-try Tet dishes from appetizers to main courses and snacks. You can start with a Vietnamese salad and fried spring rolls, then get full with Sticky Rice Cake or Thit Kho Trung. Don’t forget the side dishes with different types of pickles. After the meal, you can enjoy some Vietnamese Jam and seeds.
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© Written by Mai Bui & Linh Nguyen for itourvn.com