Even during the lean years of the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, when Vietnam’s economy was strictly controlled by the government, Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s family managed to gracefully celebrate Tet.
The author of “The Mountains Sing,” a family saga set in Vietnam, grew up in a southern coastal province in the Mekong Delta. Months before the holiday, her father carefully tended their persnickety flowering mai tree to coax as many auspicious golden blooms as possible for the first day of Tet.
Everyone pitched in to spruce up the house and prepare the family’s favorite foods, such as candied ginger, a warming northern Vietnamese nibble, and candied coconut ribbons, an iconic treat from the south.
“There is a sacred feeling of joy of a new beginning that comes with the rituals of preparing for the New Year,” she said.
When Vietnamese people celebrate Tet, which falls on the Lunar New Year — Friday this year — they describe it as “an Tet,” which translates to “eating the New Year.” (Tet Nguyen Dan, the formal name, means “feast of the first morning of the first day.”)
Another popular saying calls for the first month of the year to be a time for eating and idleness. Cooks prepare classics that are meant to be made ahead, so that they can feast and relax when the moment arrives: versatile pickles, silky sausages, brothy soups, jewel-toned sweetmeats and cozy kho, which are prepared by simmering meat in a savory, bittersweet caramel sauce.
The die-hards spend the weeks leading up to Tet producing graduate-level projects of hearty cakes of sticky rice surrounding ingredients like fatty pork and buttery mung beans (called banh chung in the north and banh tet in southern and central regions.)
Store-bought Tet treats are now the trend in Vietnam and abroad, but Que Mai says they carry less meaning because they are not homemade. “People now have money but they do not have time,” she said.
Indeed, but it doesn’t endanger the spirit of Tet. There has been plenty of blending, rule-bending and innovation as people have migrated and emigrated, and celebrating Tet is doable wherever you are, no matter your circumstances.
That’s as true for me as it is for others in the diaspora.
My family fled Vietnam in 1975 when I was 6 years old, and I’ve not spent Tet in the motherland since. Though I don’t live in Vietnam or in a Little Saigon enclave, the Lunar New Year remains strong in my DNA. It’s a state of mind more than a milieu.
Lunar New Year is often framed as a cheerful occasion, but for the Vietnamese whose history is filled with both loss and triumph, the holiday itself is bittersweet.
That feels especially poignant this year as the nature of our times leads me to adopt a pared-down approach to usher in the Year of the Ox at my home in Northern California.
I’m skipping the sticky rice cakes (my mom already mailed some to me) and focusing instead on simpler comforts to remind me of home and heritage.
There will be northern-style dishes based on family recipes, like dua hanh, slightly sharp rosy pickled shallots that are great for cutting rich foods like suon kho, pork ribs that are grilled then simmered to a soulful earthiness in bittersweet caramel sauce and fish sauce.
You can’t have enough pork during Tet, so I’ll also cook a pot of tropical thit kho trung as a nod to southern Vietnam, where I was born. The braised pork and eggs are flavored by caramel sauce and coconut water.
We could all use a major reset in 2021. And eating Tet is the most delicious way to do it.
SUON KHO (PORK RIBS IN SAVORY CARAMEL SAUCE)
- 3 pounds pork spareribs, cut across their bones into 2-inch-wide strips (see note)
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- Chopped scallion greens, for serving
- >> Marinade:
- 1/2 large yellow onion, minced
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- >> Caramel sauce:
- 1/8 teaspoon rice vinegar or white vinegar
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 4 tablespoons water, divided
Cut each rib strip between the bones or cartilage into individual ribs.
In a large bowl, combine marinade ingredients; mix well. Add ribs and mix well, coating all the ribs evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to overnight. (Set out at room temperature for 45 minutes before proceeding.)
When ready to cook, heat an outdoor grill or broiler to high. Set a rack 4 inches away from heat source. When grill is ready, you should be able to hold your hand over the grate for only 2 to 3 seconds.
Meanwhile, make caramel sauce: In a large pot, stir together the vinegar, sugar and 1 tablespoon water over medium heat until sugar nearly dissolves, 60 to 90 seconds. Cook without stirring until Champagne yellow, about 3 minutes, then continue cooking another 1 to 2 minutes, frequently picking up pan and swirling it to control the caramelization.
When mixture is a dark tea color (expect faint smoking), turn off heat, keeping pan on the burner. Let caramelization continue until mixture is burgundy in color, 1 to 2 minutes. Slide pan to a cool burner and add remaining water, stirring to dissolve sugar. (If needed, rewarm over medium heat to loosen.)
Remove ribs from marinade, reserving onion, and sear ribs on grill, turning as needed, so they pick up some charred edges and grill marks on all sides, 10 to 15 minutes total. (Or broil ribs on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet until tinged brown and a bit charred, 6 to 8 minutes per side.)
Add ribs with any cooking juices to pot with caramel sauce. Add reserved onion, 3 tablespoons fish sauce and enough water to almost cover the ribs. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Don’t skim the scum that rises to the surface or you will remove some of the seasoning.
Lower heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook 45 minutes. Uncover, stir ribs and adjust heat so the liquid simmers vigorously. Cook until ribs are tender when pierced with a sharp knife, about 20 minutes. Lower heat if you need to cook longer. The sauce will have reduced somewhat, but there will still be a generous amount.
Remove from heat and let stand a few minutes so fat collects on surface, then use a ladle or spoon to skim it off. (Or, to make the task much easier, let cool, cover and refrigerate overnight. Discard congealed chilled fat.)
Return ribs and sauce to a simmer and taste sauce. Add extra fish sauce to create a deeper savory flavor, or water to lighten the flavor. Transfer to a shallow bowl and sprinkle with scallion greens. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
>> NOTE: Some markets carry ribs already cut through their bones into shorter pieces. If your market does not, ask the butcher to saw the rack through their bones into strips 2 inches wide.
DUA HANH (PICKLED SHALLOTS)
- 10 ounces small shallots (about 2 cups)
- Boiling water
- 2 tablespoons fine sea salt
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar
Put shallots in a small heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 2 to 3 minutes to loosen skins. Pour out water, then refill bowl with cold water to quickly cool shallots. Drain.
Cut off a bit of the stem end of a shallot. Working from the stem end, peel away outer skin and dry-looking layers underneath. Separate any twin bulbs to fully remove skin. Finally, cut away the root end, taking care to leave enough so shallot doesn’t fall apart. Repeat with remaining shallots.
In the bowl that held the shallots, stir salt into warm water until dissolved. Return peeled shallots to bowl. Let stand at room temperature, loosely covered, overnight or up to 24 hours, to remove some of their harshness.
Drain shallots and rinse well under cold running water.
In a small saucepan, combine sugar and vinegar and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves. Add shallots. When liquid returns to a simmer, immediately remove pan from heat.
Transfer shallots to a pint jar. Pour in hot liquid to the rim of the jar. Weigh down shallots with a small dish if they bob up. Let cool completely, uncovered, then cover and refrigerate.
Allow shallots to mature for 5 days before serving (halve bigger ones, if you like). They will keep refrigerated for several weeks, though they are likely to be long gone by then.
Nutritional information unavailable.