Food plays an essential role in Tết or Vietnamese New Year. In fact, celebrating the Vietnamese New Year is called ăn Tết, literally meaning “eating Tết“, emphasizing the importance of food in this celebration.
As the most important festival of the year, the dishes consumed during Tết are made with care and dignity. The preparation usually takes days and requires a lot of dedication. Some of the food is eaten all-year-round, while many other dishes are only eaten during Tết. These dishes are unique, with distinctive colours and flavours.
1. Glutinous rice cakes (Bánh chưng & bánh tét)
An indispensable food of Tết is bánh chưng (Northern Vietnam) and bánh tét (Central and Southern Vietnam). Those cakes are made from glutinous rice, mung bean, fatty pork, peppers, and salts. All ingredients are then tightly wrapped in dong leaves. In case there are not enough dong leaves, banana leaves can be used as a replacement.
According to legend, the origin of these cakes dates back to thousands of years ago, during the Hong Bang Dynasty. At that time, a dying king organised a cooking competition to choose which of his 21 sons would inherit the throne. Most of the princes travelled far and wide, bringing back exotic and costly ingredients. Only the 18th-prince Lang Liêu brought a simple yet tasty rectangular glutinous rice cake. The humble prince explained that rice is the most valuable ingredient for the Vietnamese people and he wanted to create a dish that everyone, regardless of wealth or social status, can enjoy. Hearing this explanation, the king was so pleased and immediately declared Prince Lang Liêu as his successor.
While bánh chưng has a square form, bánh tét is cylindrical. After moulding them into respective shapes, they are boiled for several hours to cook (often overnight). This traditional process of making bánh chưng and bánh tét allow family members to re-connect and work together to create the holiday treats. Bánh chưng and bánh tét are usually served with pickled Chinese onion, chả lụa and fish sauce. After unwrapping, they can last for several days while a wrapped one can be kept for weeks.
2. Vietnamese Sausage (Chả lụa)
Chả lụa is the most common type of sausage in Vietnamese cuisine. It is not a particular food for Tết and can be eaten all-year-round, but you will often see it on the table during the holidays. Traditionally, chả lụa is made of lean pork, potato starch, ground black pepper, garlic and fish sauce. The pork is first pounded, then seasoned with pepper, salt, and sugar. After that, the mixture is wrapped tightly in banana leaves into a cylindrical shape and boiled. Chả lụa is normally sliced and served with bánh chưng, sticky rice and many other Vietnamese dishes. Correctly made chả lụa can stay good for about one week at room temperature.
3. Spring rolls (Chả giò)
Another must-have dish for Tết holidays is chả giò or Vietnamese fried spring rolls. These rolls contain a wide range of ingredients: typically are minced pork, chopped boiled crab or shrimp, taro, wood-ear fungi, shredded carrots and glass noodles. All the ingredients are wrapped in rice paper sheets, before frying until the rolls got a golden-brown colour. Unlike their Chinese counterpart, the Vietnamese spring rolls are usually smaller and they are often accompanied by a hoisin dipping sauce. Mayonnaise or ketchup also work well with this dish. Due to its complexity and the golden colour, chả giò also have a more flamboyant name: “imperial rolls”.
4. Candied fruit (Mứt Tết)
As the name suggested, this kind of sweet delicacies is only served during Tết. Typically, this once-in-year dessert was used as treats for guests, often preparing in a platter full of candied fruits and roasted seeds beforehand. People usually take this chance to indulge in some sweet bites, as a good luck charm for a sweet new beginning. Mứt Tết comes in a large variety of flavours, including coconut, carrot, pumpkin, lotus seed, etc.
5. Five fruits (Ngũ quả)
In Vietnamese, ngũ quả, literally meaning five kinds of fruits, is usually used for offering at the family altar in fruit arranging art. These five popular fruits are cầu (sugar apple), sung (cluster fig), dừa (coconut), đu đủ (papaya) and xoài (mango). Separately, they mean nothing. But by combining the name of these fruits, it sounds like “cầu sung vừa đủ xài” ([We] wish for enough prosperity) in the southern dialect of Vietnamese.