The Chinese New Year may be one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world. It is a time to honor ancestors, a time to clean house and sweep away ill-fortune, and a time for families to gather for a festive meal.
You might be surprised to know that the Vietnamese holiday, Tet, is virtually the same holiday. It most often shares the same date, and many of the traditions are the same as well.
As with the rest of the world, when families gather to celebrate a holiday or other occasion, you can be sure that sitting around a table and sharing food will be a big part of the day. Think turkey for Thanksgiving.
There is some regional variation in China and Vietnam, when it comes to food choices for the holiday, but my sources in the local Vietnamese community tell me there are three things you will find on almost every table for Tet: braised pork and egg stew, steamed rice cakes and pickled vegetables, such as leek. This year, Tet falls on Feb. 8.
You can make the recipes presented here, or you could buy most of them already prepared at a Vietnamese grocery, or, perhaps the best option, you might visit a Vietnamese restaurant and join in the festivities.
The recipes for the following dishes are not for the faint of heart, so if you don't think you are up to the task, visit an Asian grocery store for the rice cake and pickled vegetables. None of the local Vietnamese restaurants of which I am aware makes the pork and egg stew, so outside of taking a trip elsewhere, you might have to sit this one out.
PORK AND EGG STEW, BANH CHUNG
This is a hearty stew for a celebration that might include adult beverages. The symbolism of the boiled egg has the same meaning of renewal as the eggs we use at Easter.
It is an ancient sign of the circle or cycle of life.
2 pounds pork belly (see the Asian market)
6-8 hard-boiled eggs
6 ounces coconut soda (see Asian or Hispanic market)
2-3 tablespoons fish sauce
2-3 tablespoons best-quality soy sauce
1 chopped onion
3-4 tablespoons sugar
Cut the pork into small cubes, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the pork, but just for 2-3 minutes, remove and drain. Toss the used water. Add coconut soda, soy and fish sauce to the pot, add the pork and fill with water just to cover the pork and bring to a simmer. Continue to cook for 1 and 1/2 hour or until the pork is tender. In a non-stick pan, melt the sugar and cook until it is a deep-brown. Add to the pot a little at a time until you have the color you like. Hard-boil the eggs, cool and peel, then add to the still-cooking stew, about 30 minutes before the stew is finished. Serve family style.
STICKY RICE CAKE
This will not be the easiest recipe you have ever attempted. Sealing the package is critical and takes some practice. For all but the expert, I suggest you visit one of the Asian grocery stores and buy a rice cake that has been made by someone with years of experience. On the other hand, if you are in the mood to experiment and have some fun, get with it.
1 3/4 cup sticky rice
1/4 cup dried mung beans
2-3 good pinches salt
2-3 tablespoons chopped shallot
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2-3 pinches freshly ground black pepper
5 ounces small cube pork
Plastic wrap, aluminum foil, banana leaf
Asian-style steamer basket (made of bamboo)
Place the rice in a large bowl, cover with water and soak overnight. Cover the mung beans in water and soak for at least 4 hours. Drain both, separately, and set aside. Add the salt to the rice and mix. In a small bowl combine the shallot, fish sauce, pepper and pork, let rest for at least 30 minutes. Add a little oil to a large sauté pan, add the pork and marinade and cook just until browned. Steam the mung beans over 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Place a large square of aluminum foil on the counter top, place a square of plastic wrap on top of that, and lastly place two sheets banana leaf on top of that. Make a 5-inch square of rice on top of the leaf, top with the mung bean, and the pork, add another cup of rice, and form until a tight square or cylinder. Fold the plastic, foil and banana into a tight bundle, and then cover in another layer of plastic. It is best, just to be careful, to tie the bundle tightly with string, just to make sure it is waterproof and tight. Place the package in a stock pot of boiling water, add a smaller pot on top to force the package down into the water. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook for six hours. When cooled, cut into thick slices and serve family-style.
PICKLED LEEK OR RAMPS (WILD LEEK)
If you have any experience pickling almost anything, this will be an easy recipe for you. These make for a great side dish, or a snack with a cold brew.
1 pound ramp or leek bulbs
1 cup sugar
1 cup rice wine vinegar (I like the Marukan brand)
1 cup water
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon seven spice (see Asian market)
1-2 pinches crushed red pepper
Blanch the ramps in boiling water, drain and set aside. Separately combine the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and stir or whisk until everything is well-incorporated. Add the ramps, turn off the heat, carefully pour into a glass jar, cover and refrigerate over night.
Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes Coast Cooking in Wednesday's Sun Herald and has a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with columns in magazines.