One of my resolutions for 2011 is to take things a little easier. Many of us were exhausted by the events of last year. I have been recovering from the wicked virus that’s been going around. Hopefully by this coming Thursday – the first day of the Lunar New Year – I will have vanquished that cough to start anew. I’m physically tired from all the coughing and light wheezing. I am also behind on many projects and need to catch up. I neither have the energy nor time to do my usual Lunar New Year blow out. Nevertheless, I want to ring in the year with some kind of fanfare.
That’s the genesis for this post. It is for people who, like me, are interested in accomplishing more by doing less. Feel free to add your ideas!
Ponder the animal: Cat or Rabbit?
To prepare yourself for the New Year, think about the animal that’s coming up. It’s a nice thematic approach to framing the months ahead. Say goodbye to the Year of the Tiger. For 2011, you can choose between the rabbit or cat.
Rebellious Vietnamese people long ago decided to celebrate the Year of the Cat when the rest of the Lunar New Year celebrants feted the Year of the Rabbit. Why the division? Some say that it was a translation error but no one has clarified that. Other Viet people argue that the cat balances out the dog in the Chinese zodiac for a yin yang thing.
Don’t believe the Viet people who say that rabbits are for food and cats are not. Sometimes cats are served up as “little tigers.” Whoever believes that hasn’t thought enough about how dog is eaten in Vietnam yet it remains a sign in the Chinese zodiac.
Cats are also perceived as clean, sociable and smart animal companions. They are harbingers of harmony. Cat people are patient, smooth talkers who wait for just the right moment before pouncing!
Btw, the 1976 hit, "The Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart was titled after the feline symbol from Vietnamese astrology. Take a listen… the references in the lyrics are to the movie Casablanca but the title was Vietnam inspired.
The Chinese ascribe similar qualities to rabbits as people born in the Year of the Rabbit are articulate, talented, ambitious yet generally kind. They seldom lose their temper. Rabbit people have the ability to choose the right time to hop into action. Rabbits sound somewhat like cats, don't you think?
Pondering the animal for the upcoming year takes up a lot of time. If you become expert at the animal, you will be good at talking to others about the New Year. You will be good for Lunar New Year cocktail parties!
Talk a friend into hosting a party
So think like a cunning cat and act like a tactful rabbit to plot your Tet festivities. Consider having a small shindig but at someone else’s home! It’s enough to clean your house before Tet arrives. Don't dirty it up.
Instead, buy a new outfit, get a haircut, and ‘invite’ yourself to someone else’s abode for a pot luck party. My friend Jeff volunteered to host this year since we hosted him last year.
“Brilliant!” I responded. “I’ll bring a couple of dishes.” We’re keeping it casual with a small group. It’s really an excuse to get together to eat, drink, and laugh.
Raid your — or better yet — Mom’s freezer
Leading up to Thursday, I’ve gone through my freezer to cull a few goodies that I stashed in there over the months gone by. Lunar New Year is a time for relaxation. You are not supposed to slave in the kitchen. In the past, people spent weeks preparing food in advance so that during the holiday, they would set the stuff out for a wonderful repast.
They banked their prior cooking efforts. My modern answer to that is: the freezer. I found the following in my deep freezer leftover from Asian dumpling making sessions:
- Shanghai radish cakes
- Steamed char siu bao
- Steamed curry chicken bao
- Nepalese lamb momos
During Christmas, my mom gave me two Tet sticky rice cakes (banh chung); the above photo is of a cut up one. The square-shaped, adobe brick like savory cakes are a must-have for the holiday. My industrious mother made about two dozen last summer.
She froze them and when the time was right, offered them up to each of her kids. What a loving mother! She basically saved my butt. In years past, I’d spend 1 1/2 days prepping and cooking banh chung rice cakes. It was really fun but I am glad to thaw and refresh (read: reboil) the ones that mom made.
Make a few easy things
Over the weekend, I made a batch of Vietnamese pickles. They’re a family favorite called dua gop and combine cauliflower, carrot and red bell pepper. It’s a recipe from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen that’s easy to put together, and within 24 hours, the tangy crunchy vegetables are ready to eat. For Tet, Vietnamese people love to have pickles to cut the flavors of hearty foods such as the sticky rice cake.
I’ll be caving in to simmering pork in caramel sauce for a kho (claypot dishes). It’s another Vietnamese Tet tradition. If you’re southern Viet, it’s thit heo kho trung, pork and boiled eggs in a savory sweet caramel sauce with coconut juice. My parent’s northern Vietnamese inclination is to simmer pork riblets in caramel sauce (suon kho) until they’re nearly falling off the bone. I’m a sucker for the pork riblets for Tet. They keep for days and improve with flavor!
There are so many things that people think they must do to guarantee a good year ahead. I try to keep things fun and easy. I was raised on Tet superstitions such as making sure that the first person to enter your front door will offer you good luck for the year. (I'm getting my husband to knock on the door first thing on Thursday!) I decorate with some blossoms or pots of chrysanthemums. Then I take the first day of the new year off for relaxation and positive thinking.
Simon below asked about taboo Tet foods. He asked, "Does anyone personally object to serving or eating duck, squid, or shrimp at Tet?" Some people think that ducks are stupid (really?) and the dark ink from squid is seen as dirty. I don't know about the shrimp.
Many Viet people cooking whole chickens and slaughtering a pig for Tet. Such sacrifices seem like a joyous one for people who traditionally have labored so hard for the rest of the year. All of these things are up to the believer.
Any thoughts or food superstitions for the new year? Have you heard of any? Do you practice some superstition or avoid certain taboos?
Make it a group activity
Gold is the preferred color for this holiday. If I get up the gumption, I’ll deep-fry something into a luscious, prosperity-laden golden crisp. It will be something simple, like a shrimp and pork wonton or the Trader Vic campy classic, crab Rangoon. I’ve taught my husband to fill and fold wontons quite well so I can get him to pitch in.
Or, maybe I’ll make dumpling dough and filling and take them to Jeff’s house for a group activity. We can roll wrappers and make boiled jiaozi dumplings. Then we'll tumble them in a lots of soy sauce, vinegar, and chile oil.
Whether it’s the Year of the Cat or the Year of the Rabbit, I hope these tips help you to have a less stressful and restorative celebration.
- Simple Ways to Celebrate Tet: Easy, no-sweat things to do for Tet, such as a downloadable Tet couplet for your door, pointers on how to wish people “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin, and how to attract good luck for the New Year (xong dat)
- How to find a Tet Festival: Tips for locating these events, which hare typically advertised only in the Vietnamese community!
- Traditional Tet Flowers and Blossoms: My father used to cut blooming branches from trees he found in the neighborhood. You can clip like him, or buy, like me. This post tells you what to look for. Learn about the flowers like the one at the top of this post.
- Special Foods for Tet Celebrations: What is typically eaten during this holiday? Great for menu planning.
- Banh Chung and Banh Tet: What are they and how do you eat these sticky rice cakes
- Pan-fried Tet Sticky Rice Cake Recipe (Banh Chung Chien)
- Chicken and Bamboo Shoot Noodle Soup Recipe (Bun Mang Ga)
- Download step-by-step photos of how to form and wrap banh chung Tet sticky rice cakes . The mold is my preferred method because it's much easier to get the square shape, a hallmark of the sticky rice cakes. The photos correspond to my detailed recipe for banh chung in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2006).
- Banh Chung Tet Sticky Rice Cake Recipe
- Candied Lotus Seeds Recipe