Sticky-ing to Tradition
As Tet celebrations draw to a close, a look at ways to keep the great food coming.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
The Kitchen God knows your family secrets. According to Vietnamese customs, about one week before the first day of the Lunar New Year in February, that god, Ong Tao, flies to heaven to share his insight with the jade emperor. To sweeten Ong Tao’s journey, incense is burned, dried sweeten fruits are set forth and a fish – representing the carp with golden scales upon which he takes his journey – is brought and put in a bucket of water. Legend has it that upon Tao’s return, longevity, prosperity and good fortune are granted to the deserving (and then the fish gets thrown out).
An Choi Vietnamese Restaurant owners Christine and Thanh Trung have bribed the Kitchen God before. They recently versed me in some of the rituals of Tet (or Vietnamese New Year), which ends this week, over a feast at their Pacific Grove restaurant, which just celebrated a year in business.
“People [from] my country work hard up to New Year’s Day so they can rest for 15 days when all stores shut down,” Thanh says. “Preparing the banh chung [sticky rice cakes] is the most laborious. I would never make these for my restaurant...[they’re] way too time consuming. The sweet rice has to be soaked for 1 or 2 nights to achieve the desired gelatinous and chewy texture. These cakes do not need any refrigeration and really fill you up.
“As soon as Tet begins,” Thanh continues, “Never lift a broom, utter any harsh words or visit the sick. Very bad luck. Everyone must be in a good mood to ‘receive the spring.’ Remember – the Kitchen God is watching.”
The last day of the year, bamboo is planted and decorated with bells, flowers and red streamers, which guard against evil doers and attract only good spirits. In addition to the bamboo trees at the entrance to An Choi, Christine reassures me that the two copper dragons also “keep a lot of troubles away.”
“It’s all about superstitions,” Thanh emphasizes, “even the first non-family member who walks through the front door during Tet is chosen very carefully. They should be healthy, successful and prosperous, thereby bringing good fortune.”
The Tet feast that unfolds before us includes papayas, coconuts, red and green mangos, Asian pears and tangerines – “all cheerful and happy colors,” says Christine. There is a platter of sweetened dried fruits: ginger, lotus seeds, yam, coconut, and watermelon seeds, dyed red to symbolize prosperity.
Christine has made banh chung by filling either banana leaf (bamboo leaf also works) with the rice and fermented mung beans, folding them into a square shape, tying with string then steaming the cakes for two to three hours until super sticky.
The feast opens with wintermelon soup (see recipe, below), a broth flavored with lean pork loin, green onions, garlic, chunks of wintermelon (imagine a marriage between a turnip and a rutabaga) and dried dates. Next comes the thit kho to, or marinated soy pork belly, with chunks of pork belly that have marinated in soy sauce and sugar for an hour or two, then stewed in a large pot with water and coconut milk until the meat is extremely tender. Jasmine rice and a platter of cilantro, daikon radish, slivers of hot chili pepper, red leaf and butter lettuces, and bean sprouts help soak up the rich coconut soy sauce. Meanwhile, the pork belly melts in the mouth but does not taste fatty. Christine advises asking the butcher to pick out a belly that has an even ratio of meat to fat.
The flavor was sensational with both dishes. Later, I had a blast making them myself and I am now totally into Vietnamese cooking. To try the soup is to understand.