I have to admit I am never able to keep track as to which animal sign we’re on whenever the Lunar New Year rolls around. In Vietnam, the Lunar, or Chinese, New Year is better known as “Tet”, and this Tet New Year is referred to as Dinh Dau, or Fire Rooster. The Rooster is the tenth out of the twelve signs in the Chinese Zodiac. Apparently each zodiacal year is associated with one of five elements; wood, water, fire, earth and metal.
There are numerous amounts of traditional foods that are normally consumed during the weeklong Tet celebration. A slight variation exists between North, Central and South Vietnam. In the South, main courses such as banh chung or banh tet (Tet sticky rice cake), thit kho tau or thit kho trung (caramelized pork braised and eggs), gio cha (Vietnamese sausages), thit ga (boiled or steamed chicken) and rice.
Other food items such as mut of dried fruits or refer as Tet jam of coconut, soursop, tamarind, ginger, lotus seeds and sweet potatoes. Roasted watermelon seeds (hat dua), pistachio (hat de), sunflower seeds (hat huong duong), pickled scallion heads with dried shrimps (cu kieu tom kho) and century eggs (trung bac thao). These are popular as snack items often served with tea for guests, during chit chat or when gambling for lucky money.
I am not a sticky rice cake fan for as long as I can remember, but if you sliced them and then fry them up they tend to taste much better. Just in case you were wondering what the difference is between banh chung and banh tet? The answer is their shape. Banh chung are squared and banh tet are cylindrical, but they are both comprised of a layer of fatty pork and mung bean. Other than that their shape, they are the same. The northern region of Vietnam prefers squared, while the central and southern regions prefer the round one.
Thit kho trung nuoc dua (caramelized braised pork and eggs) is my absolute favorite Vietnamese traditional food, consisting of marinated pork belly and boiled eggs braised in coconut juice. Although it is a normal everyday dish, in southern Vietnam it is one of the traditional foods prepared in large amounts (usually in a large pot) to be consumed with steamed or sticky rice.
Gio cha, or Vietnamese ham sausage, is another traditional food found during the Tet period. Many people know it as the famous thinly sliced cold cuts for the classic banh mi. There are various types of gio cha such as: cha lua, cha chien, gio thu, cha bo, cha com, cha hue and so forth. We’ll reserve the details for perhaps a later column. Depends on your preferences, but all of these cuts pair well with banh chung or banh tet.
Here are some addresses for cold cuts and sticky rice cakes:
1. Gio Cha Minh Chau
76 Ly Tu Trong Street // Ben Thanh Ward, District 1 //
Open 6am to 6pm
2. Gio Cha Ngoc Huong
1A Le Thi Rieng Street // Ben Thanh Ward, District 1 // Telephone 08 38322001
3. Gio Cha Ngoc Huong
169 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street // Pham Ngu Lao Ward // District 1, HCMC // Telephone 08 39255218
4. Nhu Lan Bakery
66 Ham Nghi Street // Ben Nghe Ward, District 1 // Open 6am to 10:30pm
For dried fruits (Tet Jam), nuts and snacks items can be found throughout Ben Thanh Market all year round. However, caramelized pork braised and eggs and steamed / broiled chicken are always best at home.