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Tet food preparation represents cultural beauty (January 16, 2004)

Tet or the Traditional Lunar New Year, signals the end of the old year, and a chance for a fresh start. Before Tet, people try to finish their work, pay off all their debts, and settle all disputes with hopes for all the best in the new year. Tet is the biggest family and community festival of the year. Vietnamese people, no matter where they are and what they do, all return home at Tet for family reunion.

Whenever Tet is approaching, every family, be they rich or poor, are poised to take stock of their assets. Besides the installation of home fittings, and decorations, people spend most of their time preparing Tet cuisine. Sticky rice, green beans, dried bamboo shoots, vermicelli and fragrant mushrooms always top the most basic necessities.

The image of the family gathering around the charcoal fire, which is set outside for the age old custom of cooking square green sticky rice cakes or Banh Chung, is strong in the minds of many people. Though most families in urban areas buy the cakes instead of making them at home, there are still many who prefer the old ways. Preparation for Banh Chung is a time-consuming process, but it draws plenty of family attention and eagerness. Ingredients, including sticky rice, green beans, Dong leaves and pork, must all be carefully selected. Mixed pork and green beans forms the mushy centre, covered by a sticky rice shell and finally wrapped in Dong leaves. Boiling Banh Chung is something of an art. Firstly, a layer of Dong leaves is placed on the bottom of the cauldron to avoid burning the lowest layer of cakes. Secondly water is poured in until everything inside is submerged. The cooking of Banh Chung often starts on New Year’s Eve and lasts around 12 hours until dawn of the 1st day of the New Year. The scent of Banh Chung and the early morning breeze blends to create a cosy and sacred atmosphere, particularly when the first cakes are offered on the altar to invite the ancestors to enjoy Tet with their offspring. A housewife in Hanoi, Ta Thuy Ha said, "This year, I’ll make my Banh Chung at home. Tet parties should be attended by all family members because we want to raise the younger generation’s awareness of their traditions and customs, particularly during Tet. Despite the impact of foreign cultures, the identity of Tet will never change for Vietnamese people. Ritual ceremonies to say goodbye to the old year and to welcome the New Year will always be held. Though the dishes may be similar to that of ordinary days, there’s still that sense of Tet. It is something very special and represents a unique aspect of Vietnamese culture."

Pork pie, or Gio, is an indispensable dish on the dining table during Tet. Gio is no longer a luxury food, as it was in the past. A Tet party would be lacking without it. Rice for Tet is also carefully selected, the most preferred being from Hai Hau district in the northern province of Nam Dinh. In the southern region, the most sought after rice is that from the Dao rice market in the Mekong Delta province of Long An. This rice strain is cultivated only once a year in the 7th or 8th lunar month and is harvested in the 12th lunar month as a special reserve for Tet. Flowers and ornamental trees are an icon of Tet. Peach blossoms harmonise well with the drizzle and the chilly weather in the north, while yellow apricots seem even brighter in the sunlight of the south. Flower displays are a popular custom and an art. Nguyen Phong Chau, a Hanoi resident said, "Each region has its own kind of flower, representing the spirit and soul of local residents. For example, peach blossoms in the north and apricots in the south. Flowers are not only a New Year home decoration, but they symbolise people’s Tet wishes for a new year of prosperity, health and luck".

Reprinted from VOV News


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