Tet Nguyen Dan – The Lunar New Year
Tet has become so familiar, so sacred to the Vietnamese that when Spring arrives, the Vietnamese, wherever they may be, are all thrilled and excited with the advent of Tet, and they feel an immense nostalgia, wishing to come back to their homeland for a family reunion and a taste of the particular flavours of the Vietnamese festivities.
Tet starts on the first day of the first lunar month and is the first season of the new year (according to the lunar calendar), and therefore it is also known as the Tet Nguyen Dan, literally meaning Fete of the First Day, or the Tet Tam Nguyen, literally meaning Fete of the Three Firsts.
Those who have settled down abroad all turn their thoughts to their home country and try to celebrate the festivities in the same traditional way as their family members and relatives to relieve their nostalgia, never forgetting the fine customs handed down from generation to generation.
The Tet of the New Year is, above all, a fete of the family. This is an opportunity for the household genies to meet, those who have helped during the year, namely the Craft Creator, the Land Genie and the Kitchen God. As the legend goes, each year on December 23 of the lunar calendar, the Kitchen God takes a ride on a carp to the Heavenly Palace to make a report on the affairs of the household on earth and then returns on December 30 to welcome the New Spring.
Tet is also an opportunity to welcome deceased ancestors back for a family reunion with their descendants. Finally, Tet is a good opportunity for family members to meet. This custom has become sacred and secular and, therefore, no matter where they are or whatever the circumstances, family members find ways to come back to meet their loved ones
Square Rice Cake
If there is one dish that sums up the spirit of Tet it is Banh Chung. The connection between Tet and the cake is said to have begun with one of the Hung Kings, who needed to select a prince worthy of his throne.
To put his princes to the test he asked each to select a special delicacy to bring as an offering to the ancestral altar for the upcoming Tet (lunar new year).
While the other princes searched high and low for the tastiest, most expensive morsels, the 18th prince, Lang Lieu, followed the advice of a genie who told him that the dish should represent the essence of Heaven and Earth, the most precious thing he could offer.
Lang Lieu boiled a combination of sticky rice, green beans, pork and dong leaves, eventually creating Banh Chung, simply translated as square cake.
Moved by the basic virtue of the cake, which was simple enough for any peasant to create, the King handed his throne to this virtuous prince. Preparing Banh Chung is labour intensive. Sticky rice, which is made from glutinous rice and also known in Viet Nam as pearl rice, is first soaked in water for eight hours, washed and dried.
The green beans are hulled, then cooked and pressed into small balls. The fresh dong leaves, which come from forested areas, also have to be wiped and dried.
As usual the work is performed by the women of the household. Five or six dong leaves are used to line a square wooden box. Rice is then spread out over the leaves before a layer of green beans. Next comes a strip of pork then a layer of green beans and finally sticky rice.