Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! The year of the Dog is upon us! I wish everyone good health, wealth, and yummy food all year long. After a month plus of recovering from the food glut of Christmas, I am now in the throes of Tết (Lunar New Year) and its cornucopia of food! As always, my Mang has made the ubiquitous Thịt Kho Tàu (Caramel Braised pork with eggs), jars of pickled Chinese mustard greens, and daikon with ginger. She also bought a Bánh Chưng (savory sticky rice cakes) with all the charcuterie accompaniments, Chả Lụa, Chả Chiên, and Giò Thủ. The altar was laden with fruit and my Bo, ever the sweet tooth made sure to pick up a box of Mứt Sen (candied lotus seeds). Our family tradition is that we all head to their house for dinner on Dem 30 (Tết eve) to first stuff our faces, then use our Li Xi (lucky money) to gamble until about 11 pm, because you have to be home before midnight to bring in the New Year.
I look forward to Tết because it is a time of year where I get to not only become a little fatter but also a little richer. As typical of any Asian house, we start off the festivities with food starting with the Bánh Chưng. After unwrapping the banana leaves from around the Bánh Chưng, my Mang saves one of the strings that was used to tie it. This string becomes the ultimate cutting tool for the Bánh Chưng because no knife will be able to cut all the way through the large sticky mass of savory goodness without getting stuck. A standard Bánh Chưng is roughly 12”x12”x4”, which she will cut it into 9 pieces. Most people will eat the Bánh Chưng at room temperature but there is a certain way that I like to eat mine. I like to warm a big chunk in the microwave for about 45 seconds so that I can truly enjoy the full effect of the soft, sticky gooiness. The pork belly inside is slightly melted and spreads its fatty goodness over the well-seasoned mung bean filling. I don’t usually eat the pork belly but instead, spoon a piece of my Mang’s Thịt Kho Tàu and an egg over my Bánh Chưng and eat it with the sweet and salty aromatic meat instead. Because of the decadent richness, I keep my taste buds from umami fatigue by eating some pickled daikon or mustard greens to cut through the dense flavors.
After dinner, the table is cleared and cleaned so that the real fun can begin. It’s time to play cards, where you either lose all your Li Xi or win someone else’s. In my house we play two types of games; Bài Bất, which is similar to Blackjack but instead of 21 you count up to 11, and Tam Cúc, which is a cross between poker and chess. The cards used are about an inch wide by 3 inches long, and each card has a picture that denotes the number value and suit. But since none of us except my Bo can read the Chinese characters, he writes them on the cards for us. I personally don’t like this game because it’s an easy way to lose all your money in under 15 minutes.
The game that I can play all night, though, is Tam Cúc. There are only two suits, black and red, but consist of generals, scholars, elephants (knights), artillery, cavalry, supplies, and infantry. Generals are the strongest of the cards and the infantry is the weakest. Red suits are stronger than black suits, so strengths goes (in descending order) red general, black general, red scholar, black scholar, etc. The goal is to win as many hands as you can in four to eight rounds, but if the dealer of the last hand wins the round with the weakest pair (which is black infantry), it could cost the rest of the table triple the usual losses. As my Bo likes to say, there is no family or love when it comes to playing Tam Cúc. You either sacrifice yourself to save the village i.e. the rest of the table, or you are not considered altruistic and noble because you are willing to let the village burn to win. The losses in Tam Cúc are not small but the play and the banter can go on for hours. My Bo usually has us play in 30-minute intervals, with breaks where we snack on the Mứt Sen, preserved fruits, and candies while drinking lotus scented green tea. This tea is very fragrant but the caffeine in it can keep you up all night, which of course is perfect for Tet.
I am lucky that here in America I get to celebrate not only the holidays and traditions of my adopted home but also those of my motherland. Both America and Vietnam have holidays inundated with good food that brings families together and allows for new memories and traditions to be made. In the year of the Dog, I and Jovian Pantry look forward to bringing new flavors and ideas that will add to the American melting pot, with food that is Easy to make using Authentic seasonings and spices, and sauces that will always be Delicious.