The Vietnamese ring in the new year with an abundance of food and family
Rats. It’s all about rats. In 2007, Remy, the smart-palated, gourmand rat of Ratatouille, cooked his way into our hearts. As it happens, 2008 is the Year of the Rat in Asian astrology. The Asian New Year starts February 7, and for the Vietnamese, it kicks off the celebration called Tet Nguyen Dan (Tet), which means the first morning of the first day of the new period. Tet marks the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar, and the beginning of spring. It’s everyone’s birthday on Tet and over a couple weekends (February 2–3 and 8–10) traditional bright-colored, noisy and delicious Tet Festivals are held in Marrero and New Orleans East.
Clusters of restaurants and businesses hold celebrations with food and dancing dragons that wind through the streets and businesses, entering establishments to bring good fortune for the coming year. When the dragon has finished his dance, he backs out of the restaurant to leave the good luck behind. Fire crackers blast away, lettuce and oranges are tossed to the dragon and brave children place lucky money envelopes into the dragon’s mouth.
Food plays a major role in the Tet celebration. It is a time of excess; it is said that we don’t “enjoy” Tet, we “eat” Tet. There is a traditional first day feast of boiled male virgin chicken, sticky rice, soup made with clear vermicelli and bamboo shoots, boiled pork, and three or five duck eggs, offered to ancestors who have returned to their homes. Other Tet foods include Earth cake, a square cake made with rice beans and pork; noodles (uncut and the longer the better) for longevity; fish (whole, with head and tail) for prosperity; oranges for wealth and a sweet life; mussels for good fortune in business; dates and chestnuts for fertility and procreation; and vegetables (green ones) for youth, spiritual cleansing and a healthy harvest. When a watermelon is cut open, the Vietnamese believe that the redder the watermelon flesh, the better the luck for the family and business.
Oranges and tangerines represent abundance; tangerines with leaves intact ensure the security of relationships, and for newlyweds they are a wish for a family with many children. A candy tray arranged in either a circle or an octagon is called the Tray of Togetherness and has a dazzling array of candy to start the New Year sweetly. Each item represents some kind of good fortune: Candied melon is for growth and good health; red melon seed symbolizes joy, happiness, truth and sincerity; lychee nuts are for strong family relationships; kumquats for prosperity (gold); coconut¬ for togetherness; peanuts for long life; and lotus seeds for many children.
Vietnamese friends tell me that the kitchen god Le Tao Quan is the chief guardian spirit of the kitchen and that on the day of Le Tao Quan (the 23rd day of the 12th month), each family pays tribute to the Kitchen God by burning sacrificial gold paper and offering a fish for him to ride on his journey to heaven. During his absence it is believed that the household is without protection. In order to take care of the situation, people erect a Cay Neu, a New Year’s Tree of bamboo, decorated with red paper. The Cay Neu is taken down on the seventh day of Tet when a new spirit is assigned to the household for the coming year, replacing the previous one.
Tet Festivals are filled with color, spirit and lots and lots of food. Make your way to one of the celebrations and offer everyone you see “cung h? phát tài” (congratulations and prosperity).
Also this month, the Oilfield Chili Cookoff takes place Saturday, February 16, at the Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse (www.oilfieldchili.com). Teams compete early and then it’s time for the public to eat all the chili they can from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Enjoy the chili, rides, live music, a jalapeño pepper–eating contest and more. Admission is $15 (children under 12 attending with an adult get in free).