Every year at Tet the kitchen gods report to the jade emperor whether the kitchen is a place of love or strife, and the family is rewarded or punished accordingly

Tet is upon us. Tet is many things to many people, but it is a time of great symbolism to everyone. Much of what people do, say, eat and drink is full of symbolism. Some of those symbols are with us year round, but come into sharper focus at Tet. Even everyday things can loom large at Tet. If you are a lover of local street food, or a patron of com tam, you’ve no doubt seen those ubiquitous clay brasiers burning charcoal as they steam, bake, boil or broil something delicious. But next time you see one, notice the three little nubs at the rim. See what keeps the cooking vessel from contacting the fire directly. Those aren’t just little clay nubs. They are kitchen gods.

Now when it comes to gods there is always fertile grounds for disagreement or, let us say, differences of interpretation. But it is universally accepted here that the family hearth, the location of that brasier and its three little nubs, is the centre of family life. And as such an important place in life, it is inhabited by the divine, or at least a representative of the great Kitchen Gods.

Some people say that there is only one Kitchen God. His name is Ong Tao. He is usually depicted as a droll little fat fellow who has lost his trousers due to a fire. Perhaps he strayed too close to the stove. No doubt an occupational hazard for such a deity. Many people, on the other hand, insist there are three kitchen gods.

On the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, just before Tet, the Kitchen Gods depart the Earth for their annual mission to heaven. For the next week these deities, who are privy to the family’s most intimate secrets and business affairs, will be making their reports to the jade emperor (the creator). By this report heaven will know if the family hearth is a place of strife or a place of love.

To help secure a favourable report to the jade emperor, the family will give the trio a farewell dinner and make offerings of money tucked into bright red envelopes and laid upon the kitchen altar. Part of these gifts will be saved for future use, and part spent for Tet amusements. But it’s the thought that counts with the Kitchen Gods. (Or as some people insist, Ong Tao, the one Kitchen God. Perhaps with only one KD they can save on the offerings.)

The three nubs on the brazier stand for what used to be three bricks laid end to end in a triangle, with the fire in the middle, a traditional hearth. According to the legend of the hearth, in a piece of misfortune, a woman was separated from her woodcutter husband. In the course of time she married a hunter. One day the woodcutter reappeared while the hunter was in the forest. The astonished wife had no time to react before the hunter came home with his catch, a deer.

‘Quick!’ she said to the woodcutter. ‘Hide under the haycock!’ As the woodcutter hid, the hunter set the haycock alight to cook the deer. Seeing her first love go up in flames the wife leaped into the inferno to join him in death. The hunter, thinking he had somehow driven his wife to suicide, leapt in after her.

The jade emperor took pity on them because they had all died for love. He appointed them as kitchen gods so they could be together. Their togetherness was represented by the three bricks that formed the triangle. They seem to put their heads close to one another against the fire. Every year at Tet the kitchen gods report to the jade emperor whether the kitchen is a place of love or strife, and the family is rewarded or punished accordingly.

Keep that in mind when you’re in your own kitchen. Even if you think that it’s only Ong Tao watching.



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