Monday, February 7, 2011

Lunar New Years (Vietnamese Customs)

So Lunar New Years has just passed but most Vietnamese households are still celebrating (such as mine lol).
In preparation for this huge celebration, my mom and I made traditional Vietnamese Glutinous Rice cakes (square, prisms, and log-shaped ones). Along with the traditional use of white sticky rice, my mom also used black glutinous rice, which gives a twist in color and in taste. Every New Years, my mom and basically the rest of the family set out to make these delectable cakes, a tradition that has been passed down throughout the generations of the Vietnamese people. A (variation of the) folk tale explains the origins of these rice cakes, and how they represented the Earth and the Heavens:
"There once was a King who was in constant pressure to choose an heir out of his several sons. A few weeks before the celebration of the Lunar New Year, he set up a contest for the young princes; their task was to individually prepare a special dish that is unique and delectable for the king to taste and which would make a fine offering to the ancestors. If the dish is successful and passes judgment, that respective prince will be the next heir. So thus, the princes split throughout the vast kingdom, in search of rare and exotic ingredients to prepare their dish. The youngest of the princes, stayed in the city. The Young Prince did not have as much wealth as his older brothers nor did he have any idea what to prepare because most of what he could think of did not seem unique or fitting for a king. The night before the contest, he decided to forfeit and not attend the taste testing. However, as he slept that night, a magical wise man came into his dreams and instructed him to make two different kinds of cakes made from glutinous rice. One would be in a square shape, wrapped in banana leaves with fillings of savoury mung bean paste and slices of fatty pork. This rice cake, banh chung, would be symbolic to the green rice patties fields found throughout Vietnam, thus representing Earth. The second cake, banh day, which is made from glutinous rice powder, is shaped into thick round patties. The whiteness of these cakes and it's blandness represent purity and the round shape represents how vast and full Heaven is. The magical wise man guaranteed that these cakes will impress the King and the court. The Young Prince arose from his sleep and quickly got to work that very night.
The variety of rice cakes
The next morning, the King and his court assembled and began the taste testings. His many sons presented him with many rare, unique and impressive dishes such as shark fin soup, tortoise stew, and etc. However, none of the dishes could pass the King's approval for they were rare and impressive but they were too luxurious, something the King have grown accustomed to, therefore it was not unique. The last dish was tasted but the Young Prince had not yet arrived. The older Princes jeered and protesting, appealing for the King to go ahead and choose a successor without the Young Prince, as they thought he had probably forfeited. Just as the King was about to give in, the Young Prince arrived, black bangs under his eyes for the lack of sleep (the rice cakes take from 5-12 hours to cook). The court was silent as the Young Prince knelt before his father, and offered his two simple dishes. The Older Princes took one look at his platter and jeered and snickered, muttering among themselves at how ridiculous and stupid the Young Prince is for offering such a simple and common dish. The King, who was also skeptical, asked the Young Prince to explain his dish and its contents. The Young Prince explained the ingredients and the symbolic meanings of each rice cake. The King nodded and gestured the prince towards him for the taste test. With one bite, the King smiled as the aroma and taste of the sticky rice embraced him, along with the savouriness of the fatty pork and the smoothness of the mung bean filling. The rice patties where eaten with a slice of Vietnamese Sausage, which added to the simplicity of the patty. The King proclaimed that The Young Prince was the winner and to honor such a thoughtful and symbolic dish, banh chung and banh day were to be part of the offerings to ancestors for every Lunar New Year to come."

Black Sticky Rice Banh Tet
The square cake has been "re-modeled" into a different shape in Southern Vietnam (the folk tale happened between Northern and Central Vietnam). Southern Vietnamese use the same ingredients to make a variation of the original cake; the shape is log-like and sometimes black eyed-peas are added to the glutinous rice (called "banh tet"). My mom makes her own variation by using black glutinous rice or "velvet" sweet rice in her sticky rice mix, which is mixed with coconut cream for extra flavor and aroma. She also makes a vegetarian variation for me, which she uses raw cashews as my source of protein, along with the mung bean filling (no photos). I love cashews.

Other offerings for ancestors include a platter of fruit that contains a soursop, a coconut, a papaya and mangoes. According to tradition, each fruit represents a slang used as a word of prayer for abundance in the coming new year.

There are a lot of special dishes during the New Year for us. Another main dish is Braised Pork with Eggs. It's basically fatty pork, cut into HUGE chunks, and braised in mixture of coconut juice, sugar and fish sauce, along with hard boiled eggs until all has a caramelized color and the pork can easily be pulled into threads (kinda like pulled pork). The traditional method of cooking this dish is on a stove for several hours but since we are more advanced here, we used a slow-cooker (or crock pot) for it. The meat doesn't dry out and stays yummeh! The pork threads are rolled with pickled bean sprouts in rice paper and is dipped into the braise liquid. it use to be my favourite dish before I became a vegetarian. But I also had my own vegetarian braised pork and eggs (I found some veggie pork chunks at an asian supermarket and the meat had layers of "fat" (made from konnyaku starch). It was sooo yummeh!

Veggie braised Pork and Egg with rice paper and veggies
Veggie Braised Pork (close-up)

Braised Pork and Egg

Pickled Veggies

And of course, the best part after stuffing our faces out was the lucky money!! And with that money, GAMBLING!! har har har!!
This year seems like it will be awesome because my celebratory days were fantastico!

(I know the lucky envelope is yellow, live with it. It was cute.)


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