In Asian countries, Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is similar to the concept of Christmas or Thanksgiving in the west. Family members have a few days off for the holiday, time to bond, to catch up on what they’ve been missing throughout the year. And what better way to do so than by gathering around a hot stove making some banh chung, having a cold beer and talking about New Year’s resolutions? Food just brings people together. Who can say no to a traditional serving of claypot pork or thit kho tau?
These four following dishes are the taste of the holiday — when you see these specialties together on the table you’ll know spring has visited you.
Banh Chung (Square Rice Cake)
People usually say banh chung is the soul of Tet — which is kind of true. I know Tet is coming when my mother starts to make space in the kitchen to stack these cakes up.
Banh chung is a savory concoction consisting of glutinous rice, yellow mung beans and pork, bundled together with banana leaves into a square shape. Why a square? An old legend about banh chung claims that its shape represents the earth. It’s dressed in banana leaves to make it green, a wish for new young life on this planet.
There are many versions of banh chung. Banh tet is a southern version with a different shape — longer and thinner, with fewer mung beans and less meat, or sometimes no meat at all. People believe that by reducing the amount of meat in it, they can store it longer than usual.
Like banh chung, banh tet is a dish that can be used as the rice accompaniment for daily meals, and it goes well with so many types of dishes made for Tet. The tradition of making banh chung goes past the dish itself — it is an opportunity for family members to gather around the cooking pot, tell stories about their lives and all together wish for a better new year.
Thit Dong (Frozen Jelly Pork Belly)
This is a very rare treat because of the complexity of the dish. There are so many ingredients to be prepared and their proportions must be exact. If they are not, the dish will not set or will become thick and hard to eat.
Originally from northern Vietnam, this offering is made in the cold of winter to save meat for the spring. The word dong does not only mean ‘frozen’ but also winter. With just a few simple ingredients, it creates an impressive taste. A salty jelly exterior with ear mushrooms, carrots shaped into flowers and sliced pork belly hides pig ears inside. Along with pickles, shallots and cabbage this dish will definitely satisfy your inner gourmet. Thit dong melts on your tongue, and a hint of garlic warms up the chilly wintertime.
Even though the process of making thit dong must be precise, it’s a flexible dish to serve. You can use it as an appetizer like a type of cha (Vietnamese sausage). It also goes great with rice as a main. Add some pickles — yum!
Canh Kho Qua (Bitter Melon Soup)
Bitter melon (kho qua), like durian, is one of those things you either love or hate, nothing in between. Canh kho qua is a pretty common soup eaten at all times of the year, but it also appears on all the menus for the New Year. Growing up, I used to dislike it, but over the years I’ve come to love it. Bitter melon is still as bitter as I remember as a child, but that’s only at first. After the initial sensation, the sweet and fresh aftertaste is truly amazing.
The filling includes shredded ear mushrooms, glass noodles, ground pork, salt, pepper and seasoning. Mix them up, add some fish sauce, then stuff them into the bitter melon. It takes about 20 minutes for everything to cook.
This dish is usually cooked for Tet, where its ‘bitter’ name is taken as a reminder of the poor living conditions experienced in the past. It reminds us of a basic life lesson — at first nothing is easy, and sometimes it’s hard. But after everything, at the end of every bitter melon there will be a delicious, fish sauce-glazed reward.
Thit Kho Tau (Caramelised Pork Belly)
One of the classic Tet foods, every family has to have some. Having a pot full of thit kho tau means your family is well-fed, and generous enough to share the overflow with guests.
The flavour combination of pork belly braised in coconut juice, garlic, shallots, fish sauce and pepper melts in your mouth. That bacon taste created by slow-cooking pork belly fat brings you to heaven. You end up with a surprisingly low-fat dish that will still blow your mind.
The sauce is sweet, but not overwhelm-ingly so. There’s a balance between salt from the fish sauce and sweetness from the caramelisation, which works perfectly to create a very aromatic, rich sauce.
Using a clay pot you can make a spinoff version, for a smaller family. Clay pots are porous and absorb everything. Soaking the pot in water before cooking releases steam when heat is applied, which helps to cook the food.
I actually never get enough of thit kho tau. Even if every single relative has made it, every neighbour we visit has it — I have to try each one, even if they’re not so different from one another. Why? Because I taste the effort they all put in, and it’s enough to make my New Year perfect.