By Andrea Nguyen, The New York Times
Even during the lean years of the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, when Vietnam’s economy was strictly controlled by the government, Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s family managed to gracefully celebrate Tet.
The Indonesia-based author of “The Mountains Sing” was born in northern Vietnam but grew up in a southern coastal province in the Mekong Delta. Months before the holiday, her father carefully tended their persnickety Mai tree to coax as many auspicious golden blooms as possible for the first day of Tet. Everyone pitched in to spruce up the house and prepare the family’s favorite foods, such as candied ginger, a warming northern Vietnamese nibble, and candied coconut ribbons, an iconic treat from the south.
Now, Que Mai doesn’t celebrate the New Year on Jan. 1. Instead, she waits for Tet.
“There is a sacred feeling of joy of a new beginning that comes with the rituals of preparing for the New Year,” she said.
When Vietnamese people celebrate Tet, which falls on the Lunar New Year date of Feb. 12, they describe it as “an Tet,” an expression that translates to “eating the New Year.” (Tet Nguyen Dan, the formal name, means “feast of the first morning of the first day.”)
There is another popular saying that calls for the first month of the year to be a time for eating and idleness. Cooks prepare classics that are meant to be made ahead, so that they can feast and relax when the moment arrives: versatile pickles, silky sausages, brothy soups, jewel-toned sweetmeats and cozy kho, which are prepared by simmering meat in savory, bittersweet caramel sauce. The die-hards spend the weeks leading up to Tet producing graduate-level projects of hearty cakes of sticky rice surrounding ingredients like fatty pork and buttery mung beans. (The northern region’s version is called banh chung, and the southern and central regions’ iteration is named banh tet.)
Store-bought Tet treats are now the trend in Vietnam and abroad, but Que Mai, 47, feels they carry less meaning because they are not homemade. “People now have money but they do not have time,” she said.
Indeed, but it doesn’t endanger the spirit of Tet. There has been plenty of blending, rule-bending and innovation as people have migrated and emigrated, and celebrating Tet is doable wherever you are, no matter your circumstances.
That’s as true for me as it is for others in the diaspora. My family fled Vietnam in 1975 when I was 6 years old and I’ve not spent Tet in the motherland since. Though I don’t live in Vietnam or in a Little Saigon enclave, the Lunar New Year remains strong in my DNA. It’s a state of mind more than a milieu.
Christine Ha, the chef of the Blind Goat and Xin Chao in Houston, spent her early high school years eating banh chung prepared by her paternal grandmother and aunt for their clan of 100, who descended upon their home to pay Tet respects to Ha’s grandfather, the family patriarch. Ha, 41, now deviates from the standard of preparing everything from scratch, purchasing some dishes from local Little Saigon shops.
But she still wants to capture the essence of those times with her family. “I learned to make banh chung, to pay homage to my Ba Noi,” she said, referring to her grandmother. “It’s the one tradition that I understood and loved.”
Christina Nguyen, 36, the chef of Hai Hai in Minneapolis, went rogue during Tet even as a child. When she was young — and picky — she avoided the requisite sticky rice cakes at big family feasts and ate only her favorites, like fried cha gio spring rolls and tender steamed banh beo rice cakes. At those gatherings, Nguyen gambled away her li xi, small red envelopes containing crisp new bills, in a popular dice game called bau cua tom ca. That childhood food and rebellious fun now inspire her restaurant’s Tet menu, which last year included fried spring rolls filled with venison, a nod to the stag that appears on the dice and mat in the game.
In Oregon, Lisa Tran also grew up playing bau cua tom ca — and bingo — with her family. Four generations of Trans now observe the Lunar New Year together with gusto and gratitude. “We wouldn’t be where we are right now without the sacrifices that my parents have made,” she said.
Her mother and father escaped Vietnam by boat and spent about five years in an Indonesian refugee camp, where Tran, now 39, was born. In the late 1990s, facing financial uncertainty, they bootstrapped the opening of Tan Tan, their cafe and deli in Beaverton, Oregon.
Tran’s 89-year-old paternal grandmother prepares banh tet, which they serve with other iconic southern Vietnamese holiday dishes like canh kho qua, a stuffed bitter melon soup. There is a penchant for assertive bitter melon during the holiday because, as Que Mai said, “When we taste bitterness, then we know what sweetness is.”
Lunar New Year is often framed as a cheerful occasion, but for the Vietnamese whose history is filled with both loss and triumph, the holiday itself is bittersweet. That feels especially poignant this year as the precarity of our times leads me to adopt a pared-down approach to usher in the Year of the Ox at my home in Northern California.
I’m skipping the sticky rice cakes (my mom already mailed some to me) and focusing instead on simpler comforts to remind me of home and heritage. There will be northern-style dishes based on family recipes, like dua hanh, slightly sharp rosy pickled shallots that are great for cutting rich foods like suon kho, pork ribs that are grilled then simmered to a soulful earthiness in bittersweet caramel sauce and fish sauce.
You can’t have enough pork during Tet, so I’ll also cook a pot of tropical thit kho trung as a nod to southern Vietnam, where I was born. The braised pork and eggs are flavored by caramel sauce and coconut water, and eaten with rice and a refreshing pile of dua gia, a crunchy pickled bean sprout salad.
Throughout my weeklong Tet celebration, I look forward to munching on keo lac vung, a fragrant crunchy peanut and sesame candy. It’s one of many confections that I nibble on while thinking sweet, positive thoughts for the year ahead. That practice is something we could all use for a major reset in 2021. And eating Tet is the most delicious way to do it.
Recipe: Thit Heo Kho Trung (Pork and Eggs in Caramel Sauce)
Total time: 2 hours, largely unattended
Yield: 4 servings
- 1/4 cup sugar, plus more as needed
- 1/8 teaspoon unseasoned rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, belly or leg (see Tip)
- 2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
- 2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce, plus more as needed
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 5 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 2 cups unsweetened coconut water, strained if pulpy
- 4 large hard-boiled eggs, peeled
- 2 fresh Thai chiles or 1 serrano chile, thinly sliced (optional)
1. Make the caramel sauce: In a small saucepan over medium heat, stir together the 1/4 cup sugar, vinegar and 1 tablespoon water until the sugar nearly dissolves, 60 to 90 seconds. Cook without stirring until the mixture turns Champagne yellow, about 3 minutes, then continue cooking for another 1 to 2 minutes, frequently picking up the pan and swirling it to control the caramelization. When the mixture is a dark tea color (expect faint smoking), turn off the heat and keep the pan on the burner. Let the caramelization continue until the mixture is burgundy in color, 1 to 2 minutes. Slide the pan to a cool burner and add 3 tablespoons water, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Warm over medium heat to loosen, if needed.
2. Cut the pork into chunks about 1-inch thick and 2 to 3 inches long, making sure each piece has both lean meat and fat. Warm the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in 2 or 3 batches, cook the pork on all sides until lightly browned, about 1 minute per batch, holding the seared meat on a plate. When done, return all the pork and any accumulated juices to the pot, then add the caramel sauce, fish sauce, onion, garlic, peppercorns and coconut water. Bring to a boil over high heat, skim the scum, then adjust the heat to maintain a simmer. Cover and cook until a knife tip inserted 1/4 inch into the pork meets little resistance, about 1 1/4 hours.
3. Use tongs to retrieve the pork and hold in a bowl, loosely covered to prevent drying. If peppercorns cling to the pork, leave them for zing, or knock them off and discard. To quickly filter and remove fat from the cooking liquid, set a mesh strainer over a large heatproof bowl, line with a double layer of paper towels and pour the liquid through. After most of the liquid passes through and a layer of fat remains above the solids, set the strainer aside. (Save the fat for cooking if you like.) You should have about 1 1/2 cups cooking liquid.
4. Return the liquid to the pot, bring to a boil over high heat and cook until reduced to 1 cup, about 5 minutes. Lower the heat to maintain a simmer, then add the pork and eggs. Cook, gently stirring now and then, to heat through and coat with the dark sauce, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest 5 minutes, uncovered, to concentrate flavors. Taste and add up to 1 1/2 teaspoons of fish sauce or 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar, or both, as needed for a pleasant savory-sweet finish. Transfer to a shallow bowl for serving. Invite diners to halve the eggs themselves. If you’d like spicy heat, gently smash the chiles in individual dishes for dipping sauce with some sauce from the pot, and use it to dip the pork and egg or to drizzle into the bowls.
Tips: If using pork shoulder, choose a fatty portion. Pork belly can be skin-on or skinless. If choosing pork leg, select the meatier upper butt portion rather than the lower shank portion.
Recipe: Suon Kho (Pork Ribs in Savory Caramel Sauce)
Total time: 2 hours, plus at least 2 hours’ marinating
Yield: 4 servings
- 3 pounds pork spareribs, cut across their bones into 2-inch-wide strips (see Tip)
- 1/2 large yellow onion, minced
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 6 tablespoons fish sauce
- 7 tablespoons sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon unseasoned rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
- Chopped scallion greens, for serving
1. Cut each rib strip between the bones or cartilage into individual ribs. In a large bowl, combine the onion, pepper, 3 tablespoons fish sauce and 1 tablespoon sugar. Mix well. Add the ribs and use your fingers or a large spoon to mix well, coating all the ribs evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight. (Set out at room temperature for 45 minutes before proceeding.)
2. When ready to cook, heat an outdoor grill or broiler with a rack set 4 inches away from the heat source to high. When the grill is ready, you should be able to hold your hand over the grate for only 2 to 3 seconds.
3. Meanwhile, make the caramel sauce: In a large pot, stir together the vinegar, remaining 6 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon water over medium heat until the sugar nearly dissolves, 60 to 90 seconds. Cook without stirring until Champagne yellow, about 3 minutes, then continue cooking for another 1 to 2 minutes, frequently picking up the pan and swirling it to control the caramelization. When the mixture is a dark tea color (expect faint smoking), turn off the heat and keep the pan on the burner. Let the caramelization continue until the mixture is burgundy in color, 1 to 2 minutes. Slide the pan to a cool burner and add 3 tablespoons water, stirring to dissolve the sugar. (If needed, rewarm over medium heat to loosen.)
4. Remove the ribs from the marinade, reserving the onion, and sear the ribs on the grill, turning as needed, so they pick up some charred edges and grill marks on all sides, 10 to 15 minutes total. (Or broil the ribs on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet until tinged brown and a bit charred, 6 to 8 minutes per side.)
5. Add the ribs with any cooking juices to the pot with the caramel sauce. Add the reserved onion, the remaining 3 tablespoons fish sauce and enough water to almost cover the ribs, about 4 cups. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Don’t skim the scum that rises to the surface or you will remove some of the seasoning.
6. Lower the heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook for 45 minutes. Uncover, stir the ribs and adjust the heat so that the liquid simmers vigorously. Cook until the ribs feel tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, about 20 minutes. Lower the heat if you need to cook longer. The sauce will have reduced somewhat, but there will still be a generous amount.
7. Remove from the heat and let stand for a few minutes so that the fat collects on the surface, then use a ladle or spoon to skim it off. (Or, to make the task much easier, let cool, cover and refrigerate overnight. Discard the congealed chilled fat.) Return to a simmer and taste the sauce. Add extra fish sauce to create a deeper savory flavor, or water to lighten the flavor. Transfer to a shallow bowl and sprinkle the scallion greens on top. Serve immediately.
Tips: Some markets carry ribs already cut through their bones into shorter pieces. If your market does not, ask the butcher to saw the rack through their bones into strips 2 inches wide.
Recipe: Dua Hanh (Pickled Shallots)
Total time: 15 minutes, plus soaking and 5 days’ pickling
Yield: About 2 cups
- 10 ounces small shallots (about 2 cups; see Tip)
- Boiling water
- 2 tablespoons fine sea salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar
1. Put the shallots in a small heatproof bowl and cover them with boiling water. Let stand for 2 to 3 minutes to loosen the skins. Pour out the hot water, then refill the bowl with cold water to quickly cool the shallots. Drain in a colander.
2. Using a paring knife, cut off a bit of the stem end of a shallot. Working from the stem end, peel away the outer skin and dry-looking layers underneath. Separate any twin bulbs to fully remove the skin. Finally, cut away the root end, taking care to leave enough so the shallot won’t fall apart. Repeat with the remaining shallots.
3. In the bowl that held the shallots, stir the salt into 1 cup warm water until dissolved. Return the peeled shallots to the bowl. Let stand at room temperature, loosely covered, at least overnight or up to 24 hours to remove some of their harshness.
4. Drain the shallots and rinse well under cold running water. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and vinegar and bring to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Add the shallots. When the liquid returns to a simmer, immediately remove the pan from the heat. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shallots to a pint jar. Pour in the hot brine to the rim. Weigh down the shallots with a small dish if they bob up. Let cool completely, uncovered, then cap and refrigerate.
5. Allow the shallots to mature for 5 days before serving (halve bigger ones, if you like). They will keep refrigerated for several weeks, though they are likely to be long gone by then.
Tips: The shallots should be firm and no larger than 1 inch in diameter. It’s fine to select bigger shallots with multiple bulbs since they’ll all be small enough once prepped. If they’re unavailable, substitute red pearl onions.
Recipe: Dua Gia (Pickled Bean Sprout Salad)
Total time: 15 minutes, plus brining
Yield: 4 servings
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar
- 1 pound bean sprouts
- 1 carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks
- 5 small or 4 medium scallions, green parts only, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths (see Tip)
1. To make the brine, combine the sugar, salt, vinegar and 1 cup water in a large saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar and salt dissolve. Remove from the heat and completely cool.
2. At least 40 minutes and up to 2 hours before serving, add the bean sprouts, carrot and scallions to the brine. Use your fingers to toss the vegetables. Set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes, turning the vegetables 2 or 3 times to expose them evenly to the brine. At first, the vegetables won’t be covered by the brine, but then they will shrink. They’re ready when they’re almost covered with brine and taste pleasantly tangy and are a mix of crunchy and soft. If needed, let them sit for 10 minutes longer.
3. Drain the vegetables and pile them high on a plate. Serve at room temperature within 2 hours to enjoy them at their peak.
Tips: Select small scallions, ideally the width of a chopstick, or medium scallions. Larger ones can be too harsh. If you can find Chinese chives, substitute a bunch, nickel-sized in diameter, for the scallions.
Recipe: Keo Lac Vung (Peanut and Sesame Candy)
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: About 2 dozen pieces
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter or virgin coconut oil
- 1 cup (150 grams) roasted, unsalted shelled peanuts
- 1/2 cup (60 grams) roasted white sesame seeds (see Tip)
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar
- 2 tablespoons corn syrup
1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat or in a bowl in the microwave. Remove from the heat and add the peanuts, sesame seeds, salt and baking soda, then stir to combine. Set near the stove, along with a rolling pin and 2 sheets of parchment paper (each roughly 12-by-15 inches), one of which is set atop a cutting board.
2. In a small saucepan, use a silicone spatula to stir together the sugar, corn syrup and 2 tablespoons water. If anything clings to the spatula, scrape it into the saucepan. Clip a candy thermometer to the saucepan. Bring the mixture to a frothy boil over medium heat, then let bubble, undisturbed, until golden and the thermometer registers 300 degrees, 2 to 4 minutes.
3. Turn off the heat and immediately dump and scrape in the nut mixture. Stir vigorously for 5 to 10 seconds to combine well. (If it seizes up, rewarm the pan to loosen.) Pour the candy mass onto the parchment on the cutting board.
4. Immediately use the spatula to press the mixture into a 3/4-inch-thick slab. Put the other piece of parchment on top, then use the rolling pin to flatten the slab to 1/4-inch thickness. To smooth out the subtle ridges on top, use the warm saucepan like an iron, running it over the candy. So long as the candy is warm-hot, you can manipulate it; nudge and neaten its sides with the broad side of a knife or metal bench scraper, if you like.
5. Remove the top parchment layer. While the candy is warm, cut into 1- by 2-inch rectangles or any other shape you desire. Let cool at least 30 minutes before snapping the pieces apart. The candy tastes best once totally cool. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
Tips: If you’re starting with raw sesame seeds, toast them in a medium skillet over medium heat. Shake the pan frequently until the seeds are a bit plump and lightly toasted, 3 to 4 minutes. Set aside on a cool burner for 2 minutes, shaking midway, to finish toasting the seeds.
And to Drink …
Wondering what to drink? For answers, look to one of the great Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, the Slanted Door in San Francisco. It has a wonderful wine list full of bottles that go beautifully with pungent, herbal Vietnamese dishes. Most of the wines share several characteristics: They have lively acidity to cleanse and refresh, and they are low in alcohol and tannins, which clash with the flavors. The list is rich in whites, particularly in rieslings and grüner veltliners. I’d head straight for the rieslings for these festive dishes with pork and caramel sauce. A moderately sweet spätlese or kabinett riesling from Germany would be ideal. A dry riesling would be delicious, too, if you prefer, but I’d opt for the spätlese.
— Eric Asimov
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