Chinese New Year 2021 falls on Friday, February 12th, 2021. It is the most important public holiday for Chinese people who will get seven days off from work from February 11-17. 2021 is the Year of the Ox. However, in Vietnam and for Vietnamese people anywhere in the world, Tet is the Lunar New Year and falls on the same day as the Chinese New Year. For the Vietnamese, Tết is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve all rolled up in one. In fact, the word Tết means “festival” in Vietnamese.
During Tết, Vietnamese visit their relatives and temples, forgetting the troubles of the past year and hoping for a better upcoming year (aren’t we all). Tết is often called Spring Festival or Hội xuân because it is considered the first day of Spring. Like the Chinese, it is a time to return home to families and celebrate the upcoming new year. Other traditions during Tết include cleaning the house to sweep away evil spirits, preparing traditional foods, and giving gifts of Banh Chung and red envelopes.
Traditional Tết Foods
The food eaten during Tết represents the most unique and diverse foods of Vietnamese traditional cuisine. Little Saigon in Westminster, California, is home to the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. Living in Huntington Beach, which borders Westminster, I can go to Little Saigon and see firsthand the excitement surrounding Tết Festival and all the wonderful food that fills the shelves of small mom-and-pop stores for family celebrations and gift-giving. A riot of color greets you in every store where Banh Chung and all manner of sweets are wrapped in colorful packaging, a reflection of their vibrant culture.
What is Banh Chung?
How has a humble rice cake with three simple ingredients (rice, mung bean, and pork) come to symbolize Tết, the most celebrated of Vietnamese holidays? The gift of Banh Chung during the New Year has become the most important tradition of Vietnamese culture and was passed down from one generation to the next. Always curious about the delicious foods that play such an important role in cultural traditions, I participated in a cooking demonstration by Chef Haley Nguyen of Xanh Bistro (no longer open) and learned about the legend behind Banh Chung, how it’s made, and how it became a symbol of Tết.
Banh Chung is made from white rice, marinated strips of pork, and yellow mung beans. I wanted to photograph my friend Monique making Banh Chung, but she said that everyone buys these in stores now because they are too labor-intensive to make at home. This touching article by Ky-Phong Tran in the Orange County Register recalls the writer’s memories of his grandfather making the rice cakes every New Year—the only thing he ever made—and how this tradition was his father’s way of reaching back 35 years and 8000 miles to his childhood in the homeland.
Tet Festival and Other Lunar New Year Traditions
Several years ago, Monique gave me a tour of Little Saigon during preparations for Tết. We met at the ABC Supermarket shopping center at Bolsa and Brookhurst in the heart of Little Saigon. Monique acted as my translator and tour guide explaining the many symbols and customs associated with Tết while I clicked away.
At 10:30 a.m., traffic was already backed up on Brookhurst and the parking lot was swarming with erratic drivers looking for a spot. I parked way in the back. The outdoor flower market was bursting with vibrant spring blooms of narcissus and plum blossom branches to decorate homes and the shops were piled high were colorful containers of candies and nuts for gift giving.
Tangerines, oranges, and pomelos are frequently displayed in homes and stores. Tangerines are symbolic of good luck and oranges are symbolic of wealth. The first store we entered had a tangerine tree decorated with lai-see envelopes (also called hong-bao). Money is placed inside the red envelopes and given to children and young adults as gifts.
The bustling fruit market was fragrant with exotic fruits piled high in bins and hanging from the ceiling. Monique identified the ones I wasn’t familiar with and described their taste and how they’re eaten. There was dragon fruit, an exotic lemon that looks like it has “fingers”, gigantic jack fruit whose seeds are boiled and taste like chestnuts, prickly durian that’s called “stinky fruit” and has a custard-like filling. I bought a few mangosteens which are cracked open and have white fruit segments similar to an orange. (Once I started working with Melissa’s Produce, I became quite familiar with Buddha’s Hand, mangosteen, rambutan, and more.)
Preparations for the Lunar New Year and welcoming the Year of the Ox on February 12 have been underway for weeks in Asian households around the world. Although the Lunar New Year is observed in all of East Asia influenced by Chinese civilization, each country celebrates it in a way unique to that country.