As the Tran family gathers to celebrate the Lunar New Year–which officially started last Friday but is often celebrated for many days–they share wedges of thick, sticky rice filled with peppery pork and mashed mung beans (banh chung), slices of a cold cut made from chopped pig ears and snout (gio thu), pickled vegetables, and perhaps some fish in a caramelized kho sauce. When friends and relatives come by to visit, there will be endless cups of tea, served with dried fruits and nutty sweets.
These traditional foods are specific to the Vietnamese observance of the Lunar New Year known as Tết. The ancient holiday shares the annual date with the Chinese New Year and both cultures cherish similar traditions of buying new clothes, decorating recently cleaned houses and giving gifts of money in red envelopes. Yet at the essential family get-togethers to honor ancestors and exchange wishes for luck and prosperity in the coming year, the treasured dishes enjoyed around the holiday table vary considerably.
In the Bay Area, with its large Chinese population and their early arrival as immigrants, Tết, (as well as Lunar New Year celebrations in the Korean, Singaporean and Indonesian communities) seems to get eclipsed by the older and more well known Chinese New Year parade and events.
What better place to honor the lively equine spirit of the Year of the Horse than Oakland’s Le Cheval Vietnamese restaurant? I recently met with owner Son Tran, who was born in the year of the Horse and started the restaurant with his mother and other members of their large family. When they were trying to decide on a name for their restaurant more than twenty years ago, Tran told me, they thought a Vietnamese word would be too hard to pronounce, English would sound too American, and finally agreed that French, the language of the older generation and an artifact of France’s almost century of colonial rule, could convey just the right tone. Son’s astrological sign became the moniker of his family’s popular restaurant, which was sealed by his lucky find of a huge painting of stampeding stallions that defines the proud spirit of this beloved, downtown Oakland restaurant.
Since the “Horse is a highly intuitive animal,” says astrologer Susan Levitt, “people born in Horse year follow their hunches. Their keen judgment and natural intuition often help them make the right decisions throughout their life.” The Horse personality has also been noted for its independence, stubbornness and refusal to accept failure.
These traits undoubtedly helped Son Tran meet the challenges that came his family’s way when, in 2010, after 20 years as a prize-winning, neighborhood institution, Le Cheval lost its lease, was forced to close and had to lay off 70 workers due to a clash with their contentious landlord (who was later found guilty of massive wage fraud and other crimes).
When the building went into foreclosure and then auction, the Trans’ luck finally turned around and they were asked back by the new owner. In 2012, Le Cheval re-opened to the acclaim of neighborhood regulars who couldn’t wait to once more enjoy their bowls of pho, claypot rice, calamari salad, succulent beef cubes and complimentary creamy carrot soup in the same cavernous space on Clay Street beneath the soulful stares of its iconic herd of horses.
Tran explained to me the story behind the most ubiquitous Tết dish, banh chung, hefty brick-like packages of pork and rice. In the Vietnam of olden times, shops and businesses would close for at least the first three days of the New Year, so townsfolk needed food to last them till the markets reopened. These blocks or cylinders of stuffed rice, were wrapped with banana leaves, neatly tied up, and then boiled for upwards of eight hours. Although some people made them at home, their labor-intensiveness compelled most families to stock up on premade bundles to enjoy for at least three days, either freshly cut or fried until crispy.
Many Chinese New Year dishes represent good luck by their shapes. A whole chicken, for example, symbolizes family togetherness and dumplings resemble golden ingots. Others take advantage of sound puns. The word for fish “yu” can also sound like “surplus” which portends prosperity in the coming year.
The same principle operates in the Vietnamese language. Tran tells me it is important to have a Tết display in the home with budding flowers and the following fruits: mangosteen, coconut, papaya and mango, because their names also sound like other words that convey a message. For the answer to this riddle, I turned to Professor Dzuong Nguyen, who teaches Vietnamese language courses at Stanford University.
He revealed that:
- The word for Mangosteen sounds like the verb “to pray.”
- Coconut sounds like “barely”
- Papaya sounds like “enough”
- Mango sounds like “to spend”
So this fruit quartet conveys the concept of “Wishing to earn just enough to spend” (or “Here’s hoping you make enough money to cover all your household expenses”).
Award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher Andrea Nguyen, describes many traditional festive foods like banh chung and kho, (simmered meat or fish cooked in a caramelized sauce of sugar and fish sauce) that are prepared ahead of time and preserve well “…because during Tet, you’re supposed to be out having fun not slaving away in the kitchen!”
Son Tran told me about other festive foods, including a kind of sausage made from chopped pig ear and nose, formed into cylinders by packing tightly in cans. Pickled vegetables, such as mustard greens, daikon radish, carrot and cabbage, help with digestion of the fatty meats.
Since an essential element of Lunar New Year celebration involves visiting friends’ and relatives’ homes, one must have an array of sweets on hand to serve the parade of guests. Nuts and seeds figure in many of these because, Professor Nguyen ventures, in old Vietnam, nuts were seen as a luxury item, so treating your guests to them was a special gift.
Both the flesh of the watermelon and its seeds are eaten, for their lucky red color. Dried fruits are also traditional snacks to be shared with visitors over a cup of tea. “Sweet foods are important for this holiday,” Professor Nguyen explains, “ because we are always wishing each other a sweet and happy life.”
Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! Happy Lunar New Year!
It’s not too late to celebrate the Year of the Horse at Le Cheval
Le Cheval will host their annual Lunar New Year celebration on Sunday February 9 at 7pm with Lion Dancers and Martial artists entertaining guests inside the restaurant. Reservations are recommended: 510-763-8495
A version of this post first appeared on KQED.org Bay Area Bites