The past and present flavours of Tet

hanoi-tet-past

Does Hanoi retain its past flavor of corianders rising from the water of the hot baths at the last day of the year? With this and a host of other distinctive fragrant smells enticing our senses on Tet holiday, the skillful hands of women remain maintained till today.

Tet holiday came with economical wives clutching things for the holiday in their hands. With an eye for perfect details on festive days, ancient Hanoians prepared for their Tet party carefully, while waiting to burn incenses to their ancestors and gathering with other members of their family.

On the last days of the year, which takes place in the winter, they withered cabbages and onions to make pickles. The salted onions were mixed with purple sugar-cane. Sweet dishes for the party included a pudding made of glutinous rice, ginger and sugar or soft green-lentil cake with white sesame.

The home space was filled with the sweet flavor of jam a month before Tet. In front of houses, basins of kumquat, ginger and green squash were carefully prepared so they could partake in the making of jams. It requires a degree of skills and deft hands to cover slices of gingers with a delicate and thin layer of sugar powder. The squash jam was clear while kumquats kept their yellow color and green stems…

During the most festive occasions of the year, depending on the weather condition, the party featured different dishes. In particular, old Hanoians prepared for their Tet party with a very high level of sophistication.

The tastes of the dishes on display at the Tet party were quite impressive, from the smells of dry bamboo shoots, which were soaked in rice water for a week, and then simmered with pig’s feet in the morning of the 29th and 30th of December in the lunar month, to the fish cooked with half fat and half lean meat and galingale, or the beef cooked with fish sauce and ginger…

Tet-present-flower

At present, few people make jam as well as Chung cake. While reminiscence on the Tet holiday of the past, I am moved with images of wrinkled hands washing leaves, sifting glutinous rice and green bean, and am overcome by the flavors of molasses and sugar prevailing in the air.

A Hanoians’ Tet party also includes indispensable dishes such as Chung cake, pickles, boiled chicken, braised fish, vermicelli broth, pork’s skin broth, steamed glutinous rice with sweet gourd, fried pork pie and freezing meat. Some delicious dishes which are less common include such delicacies as dry squid with vegetables or fried almond dish. To make the dry squid with vegetables, the dry squid must be soaked in warm rice water, and then washed by wine and ginger to rid it of its fishy smell. Accompanied vegetables include sliced griskin, kohlrabi, carrot, chayote and pea. From the daily dishes to the ones reserved for festivities, Hanoians are assessed not only on the refinement and deliciousness of the dishes but also the way the dishes are decorated.

These dishes do not contain any glutamate but fish sauce, shrimp, crab or fish and fresh vegetables. In particular, the party dedicated to worshipping ancestors after the Tet holiday also includes the vermicelli and chicken soup or fish porridge, which are cool dishes and are easy to serve after festive days. These dishes are rather easy to cook too, and are served with aromatic vegetables. The roll dish of the southern people is a specialty, served with scrumptious sauces. However, the roll dish of northern people is more fragrant, served with aromatic vegetables. In both cases, the roll is distinctive, with the savor of vinegar stirred with molasses infused in its taste. Boiled pork, stir-fried shrimp, vermicelli, peanut and aromatic vegetables are rolled in rice paper and served with boiled spring onion and fish sauce fused with lemon and hot chilli.

In the past, the traditional Hanoian gardens grew many kinds of trees for Tet holiday such as holy basil and old coriander (used for bathing) to green vegetables. From October, red sweet gourds were laden to cook the glutinous rice for the Tet parties.

Old kitchens watched over by the three Kitchen Gods saw rice husk, sawdust and dry leaves picked up from the garden being a part of the cooking and preparation. The whole family gathered around the fireplace to cook until late night. The children smelled the taste of jams and waited eagerly to receive the last pieces of sugar in the pan.

When making Chung cake, the whole family would be busy from the early morning till late night, and upon finishing the preparation, they would wait for the first cooked cakes. The braised fish was cooked in the rice husk fireplace until the fish became dry to serve with Chung cake. Members of the family gathered around the fireplace, in the company of flying ashes, to gossip happily about different subjects.

viet-nam-tet-past Tet-cake

The delicious dishes of the Tet party were made from December in the lunar month, and the housewives would travel to the city center to shop for Tet. This means they would go to Hang Da, Hom, Dong Xuan and Bac Qua markets to buy ingredients for the Tet party. Some markets nearer to their houses also sold the same things, but for most, shopping for Tet had to be done in the largest markets. Shopping for Tet was also interesting, especially as Tet’s dishes often included colorful winter-spring vegetables and fruits.

The year-end party of the past still continues to spread its flavors in the present with the fragrance of incenses or a meal with four bowls and 6 plates. My uncle and aunt promised to cook for me a meal including fish porridge and a roll dish with vinegar and molasses on the fifth of January in the lunar month. The Tet festival of the present is bridged with the Tet festival of the past with the scrumptious taste of each dish presented carefully on the tray. On the first day or second day of the new year, the party is set with glasses of rice wine which had been mixed in daisy flowers buried from the last autumn. Each dish with its own flavor is also compared with that of the past.

After the party, the whole family will gather by the tea pot. Each cup must be visibly aromatic with the smells of rice flowers or ohmantus fragans picked in the early morning. A plate of ginger jam or soft green-lentil cake is preferential to other candies. All create a distinctive flavor – the flavor of Tet!

 viet-nam-tet-past-painting  viet-nam-tet-present-ong-do