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Bánh chưng - Vietnamese glutinous rice cake which is often eaten during Tết holiday

A Culinary Journey to Vietnam – Part 1: New Year Dishes

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.

Bánh chưng - Vietnamese glutinous rice cake which is often eaten during Tết holiday
Bánh chưng – Vietnamese glutinous rice cake which is often eaten during Tết holiday

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.

Thanks to its mild and fresh taste, pickled Chinese onion is an unmissable garnish during Tết holiday
Thanks to its mild and fresh taste, pickled Chinese onion is an unmissable garnish during Tết holiday

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.

Chả lụa - Vietnamese sausage
Chả lụa – Vietnamese sausage
Chả lụa - Vietnamese sausage
Chả lụa – Vietnamese sausage

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”.

Chả giò - Vietnamese spring rolls
Chả giò – Vietnamese spring 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.

Mứt Tết
Mứt Tết – Sweet delicacies for Tết holiday

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.

Ngũ quả (The Five Fruits) which is usually used for offering at the family alta
Ngũ quả (The Five Fruits) which is usually used for offering at the family altar
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38 comments

  1. I love it when food is the center of a festival or celebration, as is the case in many places in Asia. I’ve had several Vietnamese dishes, but I’d never heard of the dishes you mentioned in this post before. Happy Tết, Len and his master! 🙂

    1. “Haven’t experienced Tết” might make a good reason to come back to Vietnam, don’t you think? 😉 As a culture lover, I think you will like it. Although you don’t celebrate Lunar New Year, I still wish you and your family a wonderful 2017 with lot of health, luck and prosperity 🙂

      1. Indeed. I’m planning for a trip to Central Vietnam this year. But I know one day I will have to return to visit the north. Thanks for the wishes! The same goes to you too!

    1. They are healthy too, although they were covered in sugar 🙂 My favorite flavors are coconut and kumquat which is very good for digestive system, especially after eating all those food.

    1. Actually, this was just our offerings on the family altar. The actual meal might have a few more dishes 🙂 All hail the Rooster!

      1. Oh yeah? Ah yes we recall now. The offerings are to the ancestors. We also saw (when we were children) that chicken and meats were offered. They were wrapped in cellophane though and we had them after lighting the joss sticks!

  2. Are these the baby steps towards transitioning to a food blog? 😉 Awesome cooking by the way. To be honest, I can’t believe how different Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine can be. I seriously haven’t seen any of that food (maybe I need to move away from just the pho hotspots…)

    1. We can see the food post as extra content 😉 I think food is a part of travel. We don’t go to other countries to eat things that we normally eat/ or can cook at home, right 🙂
      Moving away from the Phở hotspots might be a good idea 🙂 Different regions in Vietnam has their own specialty.

  3. Wow! Your photography is unbelievable. I will admit, I have been to Vietnam about 4 times in the past with work, probably 8 years ago – and I was never adventurous! I was so scared that I’d get sick that I would just live on rice. But now that i’ve been living abroad and traveling much more, i’ve become so much more open to new foods! And your post is making me want to go back to Vietnam! michelle
    http://www.livingincinnamon.com/

    1. Thanks a lot! I am glad to hear that 🙂 I was like you. Very skeptical about foods and drinks while travelling. So I used to stick with foods/food chains that I am familiar with. But foods belongs to culture as well, you learn by eating 🙂 Today, I am more open to new dishes, but there are still something I will never try such as insects, anything that is still moving or dishes that have strong odors…

    2. By the way, great blog! I like it a lot, especially your post about your first experiences in Germany. It looks like we all had troubles with Vodafone and its customer service 😉

      1. these ones no, but its hard to find good vietnamese food where i live now. back home in sydney there are large vietnamese communities so you really take it for granted 🙂

  4. Wow, very interesting and informative! Some of the dishes I should try!

  5. Happy New Year, Len!! And very interesting post!! It’s always great to learn more about other cultures, and Vietnamese is quite unknown! Uuuummm now I’m craving for Vietnamese spring rolls… Do you know any good recipe in English?

    1. Happy New Year! I hope the Year of the Rat will bring you and your family a lot of health and success 🙂
      After doing some reasearch, I found these two guides are pretty comprehensive:
      https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/vietnamese-fried-spring-rolls-231177
      Or
      https://theculinarychronicles.com/2017/10/09/cha-gio-vietnamese-imperial-rolls-egg-rolls/
      Basically, you can be creative in making the filling. You can add/remove ingredients that you like/disklike. Good luck trying the new recipe 😉

      1. I hope it does!! And I wish this Year of the Rat brings you lots of good things too, Len!
        Uuummmm, I’m definitely going to try these recipes!! I’ve already done Chinese spring rolls (I love them!), but the Vietnamese (the ones I’ve tried so far) are something else, more tasty!

  6. It looks good. I have a taste for sticky rice. A Vietnamese friend of mine was in Vietnam this year for Tet – she’s still there. Seeing all the food she had was mouthwatering.

    1. Thanks 🙂 You should someday come to Vietnam for the Tet holiday. The big cities are surprisingly less crowded, and you can enjoy some special food which is only available during this season.

  7. Thanks for the culinary feast! I love the Vietnamese food that I eat at restaurants in Vancouver. Hopefully I’ll get to eat it in Vietnam one of these days. Happy New Year!

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