A pot of braise pork belly with whole eggs in coconut water/juice and lots of garlic.
Tết is a hearty holiday for us. We feast on the most cholesterol- and carb-laden, yet scrumptious, dishes that usually challenge our limit and digestive capacity. But heck, it’s Tết, so we leave any diet and restriction at the door and just eat.
Hence, it’s call “Eating” Tết. Ăn Tết. Ăn Uống. Ăn Chơi. Ăn và Ăn. Eat and Eat.
Before we can chow down on these mouth-watering dishes, we first had to make an offer to our ancestors (gia tiên). My mom made most of these dishes all by herself, and I contributed just a few. We had pork, chicken, duck, fish, seafood that were crafted into variety styles and dishes.
And yes, we added a bottle of hard liquor, too. I think it’s Hennessey. I don’t drink so I don’t exactly know the brand. But we surely do want our ancestors to get drunk with us. 😀 Why not?
This is our family’s ancestral table; the most revered and sacred place at my mother’s home. She will be selling the house this year and one of my brothers will inherit the tradition of keeping our ancestral blessing in their home.
Scented incense — aromatic, smoky when burnt, and yet, its scent brings me the feeling of Tết. There were times while living in Boston that I could not be home for Tết, and being without my big family left me in a very sullen that I often broke down and cried. After the first few years, O knew what to do so he would light up a few of these incenses and let the aromatic smoke wafting around the house. He also drove me to Dorchester, the Vietnamese-immigrant enclave, so that I could get some of the Tết specialty like bánh tét (glutinous nice cakes), Mứt (sweeten and sugarcoated candies), and other items that could help alleviate my sorrow and longing for the family.
My brother, representing the next generation, was doing the ancestral offering. Because of our Buddhist background, we also included statues of Buddha and Quan Thế Âm (Guan Yin). We whispered our prayers, asking for the blessing of good health, wealth, happiness…and whatever one has in mind.
My 72-year-old mother, who is still working five days a week. God bless (or should I say, Buddha bless!) for her health because she stayed up several nights preparing all these dishes. Some are labor intensive and time consuming. But she did it anyway. She said that if she does not, then the tradition is lost, and she does not want us children and the next generation to lose such an inherently important tradition that ties us to our Vietnamese roots.
Lì xì — giving red envelops with lucky money. When I was young and still living in Vietnam, there were three things I looked forward to during Tết: 1) Getting new and custom-made clothes, only one set, 2) Eating good food as much as we wanted, and 3) Receiving lì xì from adults. Those three things always added excitement to our month-long anticipation. I think living in such an economically difficult situation truly enhanced the over all spirit of Tết for us children. We did not live with abundance, and Tết brought the culmination of what our heart desired, that added values to the childhood that we treasure.
I should also add that hearing the constant explosive sound of fire-crackers coming from near and far also added to a wholesome experience of Tết as a child. Fire crackers were banned a few years after we left Việt Nam, which made Tết a bit less wholesome, but I do understand the reason for banning it. Here in Minnesota, we are allowed to light up firecrackers in our front yard. One of my brother bought these from Wisconsin, and even though we don’t have an ideal weather for Tết, or for peach blossoms to show up, we have firecrackers. 😀
My handsome Peanut, wearing a vest and skinny jeans. He was so excited after I changed him into this outfit that he went in front of the mirror, looking at his reflection, and cracking a few smile to himself. Then he came out and said, “Mẹ, me cute, Mẹ!”
Here was Mom, cutting bánh Tét the traditional way, using sewing thread to cut each loaf of bánh Tét. Bánh Tét is the labor intensive and time consuming Tết specialty for us. Mom comes from south Việt Nam, so bánh Tét is of significance. She spent two days making about 40 of them, and each weight at least a pound and a half. Pork belly, mung bean, and glutinous nice wrapped in banana leaves and cook for eight hours. She has already dropped the hint that I might have to inherit the tradition of cooking bánh Tét next year because she will sell the house and goes into retirement by the end of 2015. I guess I have to practice at least three times before the next Lunar New Year comes around.
Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year, the Year of Wooden Ram. Whether you are celebrating Tết or not, I wish you a healthy and happy year to come.
Thank you for being a reader!