The traditional tet feasts of the three regions of Viet Nam

Mâm cỗ tết truyền thống ba miền Việt Nam

Tác giả không tên 

The Traditional Tet Feasts of the Three Regions of Vietnam

Anonymous

Adapted and Augmented by Thomas D. Le

Food is so basic to a culture that it requires no explanation. I normally pay little attention to food and its preparation, much less to its arcana. But this year, a convergence of circumstances led me to a recognition of the important place food occupies in the culture and literature of Vietnam. Hence, this little venture into a realm I had no idea could be so splendid and engaging. I dabble in the culinary bailiwick as a neophyte wide-eyed and ready to learn.

Why talking about the traditional Tet feasts of the three regions of Vietnam now? Simple. When at the threshold of Tet celebrations of this year I received via e-mail a concise, illustrated description of the traditional meals served during this most festive time of Vietnamese life, I took a brief look. After decades living abroad I suddenly found myself almost a stranger to certain traditions of the old country. Now this is an opening; I could find no better way to reconnect.

The original Vietnamese text below (in black to contrast with my writing in blue) is a synopsis in bite-size snippets with abundant photographs perfectly suited to my purpose of rediscovery, and in many ways, of discovery. If you want a more elaborate treatment of the topic, there is a treasure chest of information in print and in on- and off-line electronic media, to say nothing of the huge collective memory of the people. I do not here attempt a close translation. Even a paraphrase is a stretch, for I took unprecedented liberties to augment it with details for my own (and hopefully some readers’) understanding of the process and complexity that go into the preparation of the dishes. Such liberties may have carried me far away from gastronomy. This is just a euphemism for digression, of which I plead guilty. But this unorthodox approach has given me quite an education, having benefited from hours of poring over recipes and watching cooking shows and how-to videos, and from forays into related domains. I hope you will savor the dishes vicariously, relive your memories, and are keen to capture or recapture the essence of Tet by actually preparing or, at least, enjoying the fare hallowed by tradition.

In this effort I am grateful to Sóng Việt Đàm Giang for her reviewing and editing of the manuscript. Any inaccuracies and errors that remain are mine alone.

T.D.L.


Không chỉ là những món ngon cho gia đình sum họp mà mâm cỗ Tết còn thể hiện sự tưởng nhớ, lòng biết ơn của con cháu với ông bà, tổ tiên.

Tet is the premier holiday in Vietnam since time immemorial. The people, rich and poor, urban and rural, are wont to set aside the continual hard work during the year to take on a pleasurable task of preparing for the big holiday. This frenetic activity rises to a crescendo the closer it gets to Tet. The people are determined to enjoy family reunion, relaxation, and the fruit of a year of labor.

Weeks before the lunar new year arrives, families begin cleaning up their homes from silver to furniture, even grave sites, shopping for new clothes and gifts, including plants and flowers, and stocking up the larder, since the whole country will virtually shut down, and grocery shopping is un-Vietnamese for at least the first three days of the lunar year. Families also begin to make rice cakes, pickles, and other foods that will keep for weeks for consumption during the holiday and a few days beyond. These pre-Tet activities ensure that meals are available for the family when markets are closed.

A week before New Year’s Day, the Kitchen God of each household takes a trip to Heaven to present the state-of-the-household account to the Emperor of Jade. Hence, it is always a good idea to propitiate him with a decent send-off meal in hopes he will deliver a glowing report. Then on New Year’s Eve there will be a second meal to welcome him back into the home for another year of watching over the hearth and record-keeping. Superstition or not, it is a custom.

Like in all holidays, food is front and center of activities. Vietnamese take the time to ensure copious meals are served for the living and the departed. They will go into debt, if necessary, to acquire abundance and prosperity, for they believe that prosperity at the beginning of the year portends prosperity for the rest of the year.

The Tet dishes do not just provide a special treat for the festive season, but represent a token of the gratitude that Vietnamese offer to their forebears. The menus of the Tet feasts differ from region to region although, on close observation, we can discern a common thread running through all of them. One fundamental quality of the Vietnamese diet is that it consists principally of ingredients that can be obtained in their natural state whether by fishing or raising; rarely are they processed or raised with chemicals though globalism now makes processed ingredients readily available. In addition, fruit and vegetables occupy a prominent place on everyday menu. This accounts for the fact that the Vietnamese diet is healthy.

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Mâm cỗ Tết miền Bắc


Theo truyền thống, mâm cỗ Tết ở miền Bắc thường gồm bốn bát và bốn đĩa, tượng trưng cho tứ trụ, bốn mùa và bốn phương. Thứ tự thưởng thức các món cũng rất được người miền Bắc chú trọng, không thể qua loa, lộn xộn. Theo đúng trình tự thì các món bày trên đĩa sẽ được dùng trước, thường là nhắm với rượu và ăn chung với xôi sau đó mới đến các món bày trong bát.

The Northern Tet Feast

The traditional Tet feast in the North is served in four bowls and four plates symbolizing the legendary four pillars, the four seasons and the four directions. The order in which the food should be taken receives special attention and should not be violated. First to be served is the food contained in the plates, which is usually paired with rice wine and glutinous rice. Once these have been enjoyed, it’s the turn of the food in the bowls. Thus, there seems to be a structure to the feast, as if each food is “brought out” in its turn as a course although all the courses may be present at the same time on the table.

The North is the land of ceremonials, of tradition, where the leisured class take time to savor food and drink. They develop a lifestyle based on appreciation of the fine things in life. Though generally conservative in outlook and tradition-bound, they will follow their entrepreneurial spirit to where opportunities beckon. Thus their migration to the South made of them carriers of their food tradition to enrich their new home with northern specialties.

Mâm cỗ Tết truyền thống của người miền Bắc. The traditional tray for the Northern Tet Feast

Bốn đĩa gồm: đĩa thịt gà, đĩa thịt lợn, đĩa giò lụa và đĩa chả quế; Đặc biệt, trên mâm cỗ phải luôn có một đĩa xôi gấc để mong ước nhiều điều may mắn trong năm mới.

The meats served in plates are chicken, pork, mashed pork ham, and roasted cinnamon ham. They are invariably accompanied by sticky rice cooked with the orange-red aril of the gấc fruit (baby jackfruit with the scientific name of Momordica cochinchinensis), which imparts the color believed to bring good luck in the new year.

Food colorings used in Vietnamese cuisine come from natural ingredients, from the vegetation that forms part of the culinary supplies. For example, green comes from lá dứa or pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius) or lá bù ngót (Sauropus androgynus) prevalent in the South. For purple, lá cẩm or magenta plant (Peristrophe roxburghiana) is heated and stirred in water until it becomes a lush purple. Bright orange-red may be obtained from the aril of the gấc fruit (Momordica cochinchinensis). Yellow is supplied by mung beans, a filling par excellence in cakes, pastries, and desserts. It is in these dainties that colors deliver the delicate grand finale to the feast.

Giò lụa tưởng chừng đơn thuần nhưng lại là món ăn không thể thiếu trong mâm cơm Tết. 

The mashed pork ham is a must in a northern Tet feast.

Bốn bát gồm: bát chân giò hầm măng, bát bóng thả, bát miến dong và bát mọc nấm thả. Canh chân giò hầm măng phải được nấu bằng thứ chân giò đủ nạc đủ mỡ cùng với măng lưỡi lợn phơi khô. Giữa bát canh có một miếng thịt ba chỉ được cắt vuông vức, khía làm tư để khi ninh nhừ thịt sẽ nứt ra thành bốn góc. Hành tươi được thả vào nồi canh trần chín sau đó vớt ra vắt lên trên miếng thịt để điểm xuyết như bông hoa xanh tươi mát trong bát canh.

The four bowls of the northern meal contain soups: the pig’s foot and bamboo shoot soup, the roasted pork skin soup, the arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) vermicelli soup, and the pork ball and mushroom soup. The pig’s foot must combine the right amount of lean and fat, and the bamboo shoot should be dried and of the pig’s tongue shape. In the middle of the bowl there swims a square of pork belly, scored in the corners so as to split it into four sections when done to perfection. Green onion is scattered onto the stock during the final stages of cooking. It is later arranged on the meat to add a fresh-cut flower decorative accent to the soup.

Canh măng. The bamboo shoot soup.

Với những gia đình khá giả, giàu có thì bốn bát, bốn đĩa được biến tấu thành sáu bát, sáu đĩa hoặc tám bát, tám đĩa tượng trưng cho phát lộc, phát tài. Bốn bát thêm gồm bát su hào thái chỉ ninh kỹ, bát chim câu hầm nguyên con, bát gà tần hoặc bào ngư hay vi cá hầm. Bốn đĩa thêm gồm đĩa thịt đông, đĩa giò thủ, đĩa nem rán và đĩa nộm su hào, đĩa nộm rau cần, cuốn diếp hay cuốn bỗng.

Well-to-do families increase the four basic dishes by multiples of twos: six bowls and six plates; even eight bowls and eight plates to underscore blessings and prosperity. The additional four bowls feature thin strips of stewed kohlrabi, slowed-cooked whole pigeon, soup of chicken simmered in spices and aromatic herbs, and abalone or shark’s fin soup. The four plates are pork gelatin, pig’s head ham, fried pork rolls, and sweet and sour kohlrabi salad, or sweet and sour parsley, or a dish of cuốn diếp (boiled pork strips, omelet strips, shrimp, and rice vermicelli rolled in leaves of lettuce enhanced with mint), or its sister cuốn bỗng, similar in ingredients but with the addition of bỗng, the spent-grain by-product of the distillation of rice wine, or the fermented rice raised by yeast, all of which confers a distinctive flavor of alcohol.

Bỗng, also called bã cơm rượu or hèm rượu, refers to the grain ingredient such as sticky, regular, or brown rice used in making rice wine that remains at the end of the distillation process. It is also the name of the grain preparation that results from fermentation and produces the subtle blended aroma of vinegar and alcohol. This fermented grain confers a distinct, tart alcoholic taste which makes cuốn bỗng a sought-after roll in the North. Nước chấm bỗng is a popular sauce made with bỗng as the main ingredient boosted by spices.

Đĩa nem rán, món ăn không thể thiếu trong dịp bữa cơm Tết miền Bắc. A plate of crisp fried pork rolls (in a shell of rice paper) must be present in a northern Tet Feast.

Ngoài ra, mâm cỗ Tết ở miền Bắc không thể thiếu được bánh chưng ăn kèm với hành muối cũng như đĩa dưa chua để chống ngấy.

In addition, a Tet feast in the North always includes the ubiquitous bánh chưng, which is a cake of steamed or boiled glutinous rice, square in shape, wrapped in lá dong leaves (Phrynium placentarium), with a filling of chopped marbled pork, to be enjoyed with salted onions or sour pickles without cloying.

Neither bánh chưng nor its Southern cousin bánh tét (which is wrapped in banana leaves) could easily win a taste contest. This is because the viscous consistency of the glutinous rice poses a serious challenge to the taste buds and tongue. Nimble and highly mobile as it is, the tongue has to work hard to move the ball of sticky rice around to the teeth so they can break it into small pieces. It is tiresome work. After a minute or two of this labor, which is exacerbated by the bland taste of the rice, the tongue gets tired and the taste buds lose interest. To encourage them, tart and pungent pickled onions and chili are introduced as a companion to the rice. They help promote salivation, which is the lubricant the tongue needs to work efficiently. Also tartness and pungency wake up the taste buds and keep them excited. The assertion about the bánh chưng/bánh tét’s blandness is not exactly correct, since factors such as the proportion of mung bean to the sticky rice in favor of the former, the addition of coconut milk, black beans, or black pepper to the rice, the tempting filling, which varies infinitely, especially in the South, can make this cake an attractive choice.

Hành muối là món giải ngấy không thể thiếu trong mâm cơm. Salted onions are necessary to alleviate the flat taste of sticky rice.

Ngày nay, cỗ Tết miền Bắc vẫn giữ trong mình những nét cổ truyền, đậm đà bản sắc dân tộc nhưng cũng dần dà mang hơi thở hiện đại với nhiều món ăn mới lạ, đặc sắc du nhập từ các vùng miền khác để làm phong phú hơn bữa cơm ngày đoàn tụ. Đồ tráng miệng ngày Tết ở miền Bắc cũng cầu kỳ với các loại mứt sen, mứt quất, mứt gừng, chè kho… Sau khi dùng bữa xong, cả nhà thư tha ngồi nhâm nhi chén trà ngon với miếng mứt thơm thảo mới thấy ý nghĩa trọn vẹn của ngày sum vầy.

Today the northern Tet meal, steeped in tradition and in its grass-roots origin, absorbs the modern offerings of other regions to add to the joy of the festive season while retaining its characteristic delicacy.

Desserts in the North come in an elaborate array of sweets, chief among which are candied lotus seeds, candied kumquat (Fortunella japonica), candied ginger, and sweet mung bean pudding. After dinner everyone lingers over the perfume of a leisurely pot of hot tea to really savor the warmth of family reunion.

Imagine a celebration of what is termed Spring in the midst of winter! This incongruity is not lost on the celebrants, who uphold the fiction by playing along as long as the fun lasts, for in three days—a bit longer for affluent urban dwellers—things will return to normal, which means another year of toil and struggle. Never mind the folk rhyme:

Tháng giêng là tháng ăn chơi (the first month is for merry-making and feasting)

for it only reflects an unfulfilled wish in the face of stark reality. However, the holiday spirit can last several weeks thanks to the delicate beauty of the yellow hoa mai (Ochna integerrima) flowers.

The fortune of the country may change, but Tet remains indestructible to be a bond that ties past, present, and future together to strengthen an eternal, an existential entity, the Vietnamese soul.

Mâm cỗ Tết miền Trung

Miền Trung nằm giữa hai đầu đất nước với khí hậu quanh năm khắc nghiệt nên mâm cỗ của người miền Trung chăm chút và chú ý nhiều hơn đến khả năng bảo quản, tuy nhiên vẫn có những món nước và món mặn theo truyền thống.

The Tet Feast of the Central Region

Joining North and South, the Central Region labors under an intractable climate; and this reality is embodied in its austere, varied fare, characterized by economy, parsimonious management, and resource preservation.

The region’s imperial tradition bestows sophistication to the Tet feast as well as the everyday menu because the royal gastronomical art had percolated from the citadel and was widely adopted by the commoners. Now Hue’s culinary art is a subtle blend of imperial and popular traditions, much appreciated by locals and visitors from around the world.

Straddling the placid Perfume River, venerable Hue used to be a quiet city when I commuted there long ago as a visiting faculty of its only university. The market, however, was as bustling as any markets in cities across the nation. And the everyday food? As delicious as any. There are dishes some people don’t care for; but by and large Hue food pales beside none, especially if you like spicy things. Take the basic bún (rice vermicelli soup), for example. It is served steaming hot with chicken, pork, beef, fish, shrimp in a multitude of configurations, sliced, shredded, diced, cubed, cut, chunked, balled, all perfumed with herbs. Again take cơm âm phủ. Literally the name means something like Hades’ rice, Hell’s rice, Underworld rice, or some such lugubrious name. The prevailing theory about the name is that this rice was served at night, originally to late-night workers in an unpretentious restaurant whose name became that of its specialty. Theory aside, the taste is heavenly. And if I must propose a new name, then let it be cơm thiên đàng, paradise rice.

The traditional Tet meal of this sinewy land consists of two groups: the liquids, and the salted dishes.

Món nước thường có giò heo hầm, cá đồng nấu ám, gà tiềm hạt sen, canh hoa kim châm nấu với miến, tôm và thịt heo. Món mặn thường có nem chả, gà rô ti, tôm rim với thịt heo kho tàu, cuốn ram, thịt heo luộc, thịt gà xé phay, các thứ rau củ quả hay măng khô xào với lòng mề gà hoặc tôm và thịt heo. Ngoài ra còn có các món khô như: nem, tré, thịt heo hay thịt bò ngâm nước mắm, bánh tét cắt lát hoặc bánh chưng ăn kèm với dưa món.

Among the liquids must be counted the pig’s foot soup, braised fresh-water fish; chicken simmered with lotus seed; slow-cooked soup of rice vermicelli and daylily flowers (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus); shrimp and pork. The salty dishes boast tangy pork balls, roast chicken, caramelized shrimp, braised pork, Central-style fried rolls, boiled pork, shredded chicken salad, tubers, vegetables, or dried bamboo shoot sautéed with chicken gizzards, prawn and pork. The dry dishes are cured pork balls, fermented sausage made from pig’s head, beef or pork pickled in fish sauce, sliced sticky rice cake (bánh tét or bánh chưng) to pair with sweet-and-sour multivegetable pickles.


The Tet menu as described above passes over the rich offerings of Hue cuisine. One of the creative dishes of this land is a steamed, boiled or fried preparation that is generically called bánh made basically of rice, tapioca, and similar flour. These dishes are distinguished among themselves by myriads of fillings or toppings, and varied sizes that confer personality to each one. The term bánh is slippery, for it as protean as the multitude of foods bearing the classifier. It ranges from a side to a main dish in its numerous incarnations. In terms of taste, it can be wet, dry, sweet, sour, salty, spicy, gluey, flaky, crunchy, soft, hard, spongy, hot, cold, flat, bland, or any permissible combinations. In terms of cooking methods, it is boiled, steamed, grilled, fried, caramelized, slow-cooked, even uncooked. In shape it is round, square, rectangular, oblong, triangular, semicircular, diamond, pyramidal, or spherical. The word cake covers a large segment of the spectrum, leaving room for dumpling, bun, pudding, ball to cover the rest. Small bánh need no wrapping; but larger ones are wrapped predominantly in banana leaves or less frequently in lotus leaves. For example, the bánh bột lọc is an unwrapped, steamed clear tapioca dumpling with chopped shrimp and pork belly filling. The secret is in the filling. The Center’s bánh khoái, a crisp, thick rice crepe or pancake, colored in yellow with a powder made from turmeric rhizome, is fried with a variety of combinations of sliced pork belly, shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, chopped vegetables or herbs. Its southern cousin, the bánh xèo, is thin and large with similar fillings. Two or three of these could make a meal. Each kind demands its own special sauce. The secret here is in the batter and the filling. The bánh tráng, rice paper, is used solely as a wrapper. And the list goes on. For a more in-depth treatment of bánh, you will need a specialized cookbook or a monograph.

Dưa món cũng là món ăn không thể thiếu trong mâm cơm Tết miền Trung, cũng như dưa hành của người miền Bắc. The vegetable pickles are just as indispensable in the Central meal during Tet as the onion pickles are in its Northern counterpart.

Mâm cỗ Tết miền Trung cũng rất nhiều món ăn đặc sắc với cách chế biến phong phú nhưng hầu hết đều là các món mặn, đậm đà gia vị để bảo quản được lâu: nem lụi, bò nướng sả ớt, heo quay, gà quay, bò nấu thưng, củ cải kho nạc heo, thịt nạc rim, hon… Ngoài ra, mâm cỗ Tết ở đây còn có các món như thịt bò, thịt heo ngâm nước mắm.

The Tet feast in the Central Region employs a rich set of cooking techniques almost all of which apply to the salted dishes on which a profusion of spices is lavished to enhance taste and preservation. Among such foods are grilled pork sausages, beef grilled with lemongrass and peppercorn, roast pork, roast chicken, braised beef, caramelized lean beef with turnip, lean pork braised or seared over open fire. Pork and beef pickled in fish sauce are also flavorful components of the Tet menu.

Miền Trung còn là nơi nổi bật với thói quen “cuốn” nên trong mâm cỗ không thể thiếu các món bánh tráng, rau sống cuốn. Bên cạnh đó còn có các món trộn như: thịt gà trộn rau răm, vả trộn, măng trộn, mít trộn làm khai vị.

The Middle Region has a love affair with rolls, as witnessed by the inevitable rice paper and fresh vegetables, parading alongside salads such as laksa leaf (Vietnamese cilantro, Persicaria odorata) chicken salad, bamboo shoot salad, and jackfruit salad all beloved as aperitifs.

Actually, rolls are a timeless, favorite technique preferred throughout the country. If the dish is dry (such as grilled, barbecued, roasted, boiled meat or fish, even rice crepes), it can be consumed by wrapping it in rolls filled with herbs and vegetables, with or without rice vermicelli, and dipping the combination in an appropriate sauce. The wrapping materials can be rice paper, but are mainly broad-leaf vegetables such as lettuce. Regardless of whether they are fried or not, rolls always incorporate their complement of herbs and vegetables.

Đồ ngọt tráng miệng của người miền Trung cũng có đủ các loại mứt: mứt gừng, mứt me, mứt quất, mứt sen, các loại bánh ngũ sắc, bánh phục linh, bánh sen tán, bánh in bột nếp, các loại bánh đậu xanh nhuộm màu nặn theo hình trái cây, kết thành nhánh cây… rất nghệ thuật. Các loại bánh mứt ngọt đậm, được sấy kỹ nên có thể dùng ăn dần đến cả tháng vẫn không bị hỏng.

The desserts from the Central Region include all kinds of fruit candies. Only a meager sampling is discussed here to save space. Diners routinely have trouble choosing from among candied ginger, candied tamarind, candied kumquat, candied lotus seed, five-color layered rice cake, tapioca cake, crushed lotus seed cake, sticky rice cake, mung bean cake artistically simulating fruits on their stems in natural colors. The best way is not to choose, but to try them all. These strongly sweetened candies are carefully dried to preserve their taste and freshness for up to a month. Don’t let their innocuous appearance fool you, for they are pretty addictive.

Bánh đậu xanh trái cây rực rỡ sắc màu đặc trưng của người Huế.  Mung bean cakes in vibrant colors and small-fruit shapes are the specialties of Hue.

Mâm cỗ Tết miền Nam

Trái ngược với thời tiết giá rét của miền Bắc, miền Nam vào Tết không khí vẫn còn vương nắng nóng. Với đặc thù nhiều sản vật trù phú, cây trái sum suê nên cỗ Tết ở đây có phần phong phú và ít nặng nề về nghi thức, kỹ lưỡng như của miền Bắc. Trên thực tế mâm cỗ Tết phương Nam thể hiện đậm nét văn hóa mộc mạc, không cầu kỳ trong chế biến và bày biện, sử dụng nhiều nguyên liệu từ tự nhiên hơn là nuôi trồng.

The Tet Feast of the South

Lacking the cold weather of the North, the South basks in mild sun and heat during the Tet holiday. Its Tet dishes reflect the abundance and fertility of the land and put less emphasis on the meticulous ceremony of the North. Hence, the southern Tet feast embodies the region’s simpler culture that is unencumbered by the ostentation and inventiveness of the North and characterized by ingenious use of natural resources. As a result the region produces abundant grain and fruit crops. Fresh-water fishing yields more than enough for local consumption with the surplus shipped to urban centers and overseas. Small farm animal raising supplies local needs and those of large metropolitan areas with exploding populations. Vast expanses of paddy stretch across the normally fertile Mekong delta, dotted by myriad villages where orchards, vegetable farms, coconut groves, farmyards, fish ponds, canals, rivulets, and rivers yield limitless bounty. On the many rivers that crisscross the delta, fish farms take advantage of the flowing water and small river fish, which serve as food, to produce large farm-raised fish at low cost for domestic consumption and export. This produce appears in abundance in floating markets on riverways of major provincial towns. These and much more are the rural face of the South whereas the largest metropolis in the country, the Pearl of the Orient, vibrant, entrepreneurial, eternal Saigon, is taking giant steps toward becoming a modern city. This sprawling behemoth has gobbled up surrounding townships to reach ten million people crowding in more than 800 square miles. Feeding them and some three million tourists annually keeps the southern plains bustling with agricultural activity year round. The agricultural population of this land is not rich, at least not yet, but it never lacks food though distribution may be an issue. Peace plus hard work on fertile soil and water spells food security for the people of the open South in spite of destructive annual floods. The real problem is freshwater acidification and soil desiccation caused by dams built farther upstream. Let us take a look at the Tet menu of the region.

Mâm cỗ Tết miền Nam đơn giản, phóng khoáng. The Southern Tet feast is a model of simplicity and openness.

Các món nguội chiếm đa số trong mâm cỗ Tết của người Nam. Cỗ có bánh tét đi kèm với đĩa củ cải ngâm nước mắm; thịt heo và trứng vịt kho nước dừa ăn với dưa giá hay kiệu chua, thịt heo luộc chấm nước mắm, giò heo nhồi, lạp xưởng tươi, gỏi bì heo cuốn, chả giò, gỏi tôm thịt ngó sen, tôm khô củ kiệu, phá lấu, canh măng (được nấu bằng măng tươi chứ không phải măng khô như miền Bắc)…

Hot and cold dishes vie for a place in the Tet meal of the South. Among these figure the steamed or boiled mung bean sticky rice cake (bánh tét), which pairs well with shredded turnip pickled in fish sauce. Main courses flatter the palate with pork butt and duck eggs stewed in coconut water; boiled pork dipped in fish sauce; stuffed pig’s leg; fresh spiced pork sausage; stewed pork organ meats. The soup uses fresh bamboo shoot (not the dried kind preferred in the North). Mouth-watering sides such as pig’s skin salad in rolls, fried pork rolls, prawn-pork-lotus root salad, dried shrimp and pickled scallions can well be transformed into the main attraction. One item that harks back to western influence is French bread, which is absent from the menus of the Northern and Central regions. Vietnamese bakery chefs have learned to make excellent French bread and pastries. While French bread with a crunchy crust secures its coveted niche among Tet dishes, it and French pastries are a treat all year round.

For dessert, the refreshing bright red flesh of the watermelon brightens up the table with its vibrant color amidst a bewildering array of specialty candied fruits, which also please the taste of fastidious North and Central folks. Its thick, hard green rind with dark green stripes can be cut into various shapes for decorations; and its flesh varies in color from red to pink to yellow, orange, and white. Red is the most prized color. The prominent place of the watermelon in the Tet meal of the South has no counterpart in the other regions. Sitting next to the green gluey bánh tét, its deep-red flesh bursting with sweet juice, promises relief from the cloying sticky rice.

Candies belong in the department of abundance and variety. One of these is the addictive thèo lèo; you can’t eat just one. It is a confection of roasted peanut and sesame seeds mildly sweetened with caramel, naturally scented with I-know-not-what. It comes in short chewy bite-size bars and crunchy drops wrapped in sugary coats singing in a symphony of colors. Write a poem, write an ode, a rhapsody, nay, a book, but you can never get ecstatic enough about this candy with an unprepossessing name. Add a hot cup of aromatic and bitter tea to the mix, and time loses meaning.

Tai heo ngâm giấm cũng là món ăn đặc trưng trong mâm cỗ của người miền Nam. Pig’s ear pickled in vinegar is a special delicacy on the Tet menu of the South.

Đặc biệt, đối với người Nam, hai món: thịt kho Tàu và canh khổ qua nhồi thịt là những món ăn không thể thiếu trong bất cứ nhà nào. Người dân Nam Bộ nấu món này làm cỗ Tết với ý nghĩa cầu mong cho cơ cực của năm cũ qua đi (khổ qua nghĩa là sự khổ trôi qua) và chào đón năm mới tốt đẹp hơn. Món thịt kho Tàu lại có ý nghĩa thể hiện sự cầu mong cho luôn có nước ngọt tẩy rửa nước mặn đồng chua để mùa màng được xanh tốt.

In the South two obligatory dishes are served in every family: the braised pork and the stuffed bitter melon soup. Note that pork is the basis of these and numerous other recipes. They are not specifically Tet items, for they can appear on the table throughout the year. Raised on the farm pork generally costs more than fish, the staple of a typical southern diet, because of the length of time and amount of food needed to ready it for the butcher; however, for Tet these two items must be served.

Pigs on a typical farm eat just about anything; they are great recyclers so that farmers channel refuse from food preparation to their troughs. The nutritious spent-grain from rice wine manufacturing is a component of their diet; it fattens them more quickly.

Bitter melon or bitter gourd (Momordica charantia) grows preponderantly in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China. With its medicinal properties and nutritional values, bitter melon is popular in the diet of all the people living in these areas, and bears different local names. It can be eaten raw, sautéed, stir-fried, or in soup giving pleasure with its bitterness.

It is thought that the bitter melon soup carries the meaning of booting out the misery of the past year. Though the name khổ qua can mean the passing of misery by strained folk etymology, it is simply the name of the bitter melon. The braised pork is supposed to symbolize the wish that fresh water cleanses the soil of its saline and acid contents thereby restoring the field’s fertility. How a connection could be made between braised pork and soil rejuvenation is a mystery. Here is probably another instance of superstition. Aside from these curious anecdotes, I believe the dishes can win any Tet food contest hands down.

Khổ qua là món ăn đại diện cho mong ước một năm mới hanh thông. Bitter melon represents a wish for a brighter new year.

Thịt heo và trứng kho nước dừa ăn kèm với dưa giá và kiệu chua. The pork and eggs braised in coconut water go wonderfully well with pickled bean sprouts and pickled scallions.

Một điểm khác biệt nữa giữa mâm cỗ Tết miền Nam với mâm cỗ Tết miền Bắc chính là bánh tét. Bánh tét miền Nam rất đa dạng cả về hương vị lẫn màu sắc. Mỗi loại bánh tét lại có cách kết hợp nguyên liệu, tạo hình và màu sắc khác nhau. Đó có thể là đòn bánh tét có phần nếp bên ngoài trộn lẫn với dừa nạo, đậu đen, lá cẩm, lá dứa….để cho ra đời những mẻ bánh với màu sắc bắt mắt. Các loại nhân bên trong đòn bánh tét cũng vô cùng phong phú từ nhân đậu xanh với mỡ truyền thống, đến nhân chuối, nhân thập cẩm, nhân đậu xanh trứng muối… Có khi đòn bánh tét còn được người làm bánh tạo dáng để khi cắt ra có thể trưng bày thành hình hoa mai, chữ Thọ, chữ Phúc….

An important difference between the Tet feast of the South and that of the North resides in the sticky rice cake (bánh tét). In the South the rice cake takes on numerous flavors and colors. Thus, types of bánh tét vary in ingredients, shape, and design. The sticky rice can be mixed with grated coconut flesh, black peas, pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius), the magenta plant (Peristrophe roxburghiana) all of which lend themselves to creative colors and designs that are revealed when the cake is cut open. The cake’s filling rivals the rice in variety of ingredients, which range from the traditional mung bean and pork belly fat, and banana to mincemeat, and mung bean and salted duck egg yolk. Sometimes the cake’s cross sections display interesting designs such as apricot blossoms, or the symbols of Happiness, Prosperity, and Longevity, or any other design such as the one shown in the photo below. Innovation in design is limited only by the imagination.

Các loại bánh mứt ở miền Nam cũng rất phong phú: mứt dừa, mứt me, mứt mãng cầu, gừng dẻo, thèo lèo, kẹo chuối… với vị ngọt đặc trưng phần. So với 2 miền còn lại, các loại mứt miền Nam hơn hẳn về loại và sự phong phú.

The sweetmeats of the South come in a rich assortment; all of them are dried for long shelf-life. The following list can only hint at the rich collection. Young and old the Southerners enjoy candied shredded coconut meat, candied tamarind, candied soursop, soft ginger candy, peanut and sesame brittle, candied banana, candied lotus seed, peanut and sesame in hard and soft confection, and more. Compared with the other two regions, the confections of the South surpass them in variety and abundance.

***

This brief overview of the traditional Tet feasts of the three regions of Vietnam only scratches the surface of a significant aspect of Vietnamese cuisine. All three regions contribute to the rich variety of Vietnamese food, which please diners in terms of nutrition, esthetic appeal, taste, and cost.

In the course of my research I discovered videos featuring Vietnamese-speaking young men from Korea, Japan, the United States, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Poland, Germany, and other countries. Many came to teach English, cooking, or what have you; others to study in college or own small businesses. Almost all have lived in the country for three years or more. Most have traveled to other countries and points of interest in Vietnam. They decided to settle down for now, struck by the beauty of the country, the friendliness and openness of the people, especially in the South, the culture, and the food. The videos show them discussing and preparing meals in homes, grocery shopping for Tet or for the daily meals, or enjoying the hustle and bustle of Saigon. The videos reveal a keen interest among this young, earnest global community in Vietnam reckoned as land, people, culture, and way of life. In Saigon, the Tourist Quarter, with a Vietnamese moniker, Phố Tây or Phố Tây Ba Lô (the latter two words are the French ballot for backpack,Western Quarter or Backpackers’ Quarter), is a feast that never ceases. This is Saigon’s tourist paradise, where food and lodging are a bargain. In this cozy and friendly district, defined by four streets within walking distance of the Central Market (Chợ Bến Thành), tourists sit on stools or on cushions thrown on the sidewalks eating, drinking beer, and socializing until dawn. The sight of tourists from around the planet enjoying street food with gusto is validation of the Vietnamese diet, which appeals to the taste, health concern, curiosity, and wallet of everyone.

Speaking of street food, imagine miles of sidewalks in Hanoi and in Saigon overflowing with small tables and smaller chairs packed like sardines between tiny congested “trenches” left open between customers for moving around. Hanoi sidewalk eateries feature Lilliputian low-slung tables perhaps scarcely two feet in height surrounded by stools that strain to rise off the ground. Now imagine Western tourists comfortably settled on such seating arrangements blithely enjoying tasty food cooked under their noses among local diners, some of whom taking advantage of the close quarters to strike up a conversation with foreigners and snatch a few words with which to enlarge their language repertoire amidst the constant din of babel. To be fair, tourists also take free language lessons from the locals. The whole scene is controlled but joyful chaos, forever seared into memory, and divinely destined to enchant. In Saigon, broader sidewalks accommodate regular-size tables and chairs and more room to move around. But the crowds of foreign tourists and residents, and locals are just as dense, if not more, and the fare just as deliciously exciting. The roominess of Saigon food-serving sidewalks boast a rich menu not offered in swank hotels and high-end restaurants. Just off the sidewalks and tucked in narrow alleys, swarms of restaurants of all sizes, some reaching regular dimensions, and their storefront big brothers bridge the cost gap between the bare-bone sidewalk spots and the tony establishments.

Starting from Tet menus we broke out to gain a bit more perspective and depth about Vietnamese food in general. Weeks of research helped me to acquire some knowledge about the one aspect of Vietnamese culture that seems to be quite successful in winning approbation from people around the globe. They came to see and experience for themselves what the country is like. And Vietnamese food is the best ambassador of goodwill the country can be proud of. ■

Thomas D. Le

24 March 2016

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This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of Firmament.