The Lunar New Year is just around the corner. In fact, my mom -- for the first time ever -- asked me when Tet was. When I responded, "January 23, 2012," she about fell out of her chair.
"It's so fast this year," she said with a slight groan. Then she checked her calendar for when she should wrap and cook banh chung Tet sticky rice cakes. She priority mails them to my siblings and their children in college. (Seriously.)
As for me, I started thinking about what the Year of the Dragon may turn out to be. It's suppose to be a time to celebrate colorful, free spirits -- that is, law and rule breakers! My kind of people. Dragons are also known to be ambitious, flamboyant, and energetic. On the other hand, this upcoming new year is the year of the Water Dragon (Black Dragon according to Yun Ho, my friend in Korea). The water element means that the dragon will be calm and feminine. A sort of Puff the Magic Dragon is what I envision.
Lunar New Year is fun. Aside from what you can read into the zodiac animals, you must shop. I'm not talking about dropping a ton of dough, but rather, shopping at Asian markets and looking for holiday decorations -- stuff to cheer up the house and set things right for a new course once January 23 arrives. Splurging for small extravagances gets me in the Tet mood.
Lunar New Year Sweets
If you're game, head to an Asian market. You'll see displays of sweet treats. Most of them look inedible but they sport extraordinary colors (lots of food coloring) and are obligatory snacks for when guests visit to share New Year wishes.
I'm always drawn to candied coconut ribbons like the ones above. But I remind myself that they're rather tasteless. I go home to make my own mut dua. Since it's citrus season, I also find the most perfect navel oranges at the farmer's market for a batch of candied orange peels (see Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, pages 294 and 295 for sweetmeat recipes); the peels are nontraditional but Viet cooks tend to candy whatever fruits that are available to them. Candied lotus seeds are nice too, albeit a little tricky to make.
Even though these buttery Vietnamese mung bean cakes sometimes give me a little gas, I had to buy a box of banh dau xanh:
They're made by Bao Hien Rong Vang -- note the golden dragon on the logo -- a well-regarded Vietnamese bakery. You can find this northern Vietnamese specialty at Vietnamese bakeries abroad. They're great with tea. I typically cut one square into 4 melt-in-your-mouth morsels.
If you have Chinese doughy goodness on your mind, a batch of sinful Chinese peanut cookies (hua sheng bing) are a delicious New Year treat. If you're up to deep-frying, make Cantonese sesame balls (ma tuan/jin deui, see Asian Dumplings, page 201). Your family will praise you for many new years to come.
Year of the Dragon Cards
Lunar New Year is also about spreading good vibes. I used to make my own greeting cards but gave up after the last Year of the Rabbit. This time around I found great cards on Etsy.com I ordered them over the weekend and they arrived today from San Diego. Etsy had other options but this one had a hand-crafted, woodblockish look:
If you're like me and awful at sending out Christmas cards, Lunar New Year cards are a terrific workaround. No one will wonder why you're late.
Dust off Decorations
You have to gussy up the house for Lunar New Year. My husband and I rummage around in our closets for New Year decor -- for example, lanterns and Chinese character hangings that say "good luck" and "great fortune. " I also print out and display a Vietnamese Tet couplet on our door. For the Year of the Dragon, we dusted off this paper dragon from 12 years ago. Go to Cost Plus, Chinese markets, and Asian restaurant supply shops for knick knacks like this:
Then, I also realized that we'd brought this dragon platter back from Hoi An, Vietnam, in 2003.
Our friend Victor Fong had the amazing dragon at the top of this post at his house. After decorating it for Christmas, he took off the ornaments and used it for Chinese New Year.
The point is: Buy a few fun, tacky decorations but if you have Asian stuff around, there are likely dragons already in your home. Clean them up and display them in an extra prominent spot for January 23. Go ahead, you already paid for it.
Keeping all of this in mind, let's have some fun and break a few rules. My husband and I are experimenting with making bathtub gin for a Lunar New Year cocktail. More on that as details develop.
Simon Bao suggested a meatless Tet celebration since the holiday falls on a Monday. Any takers or ideas? Buddhists are likely well versed in having meatless Lunar New Year!
In the mean time, ponder, shop, and get ready for the Year of the Dragon.
- 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 for the holiday.
- 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
- Chinese peanut cookies