By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly
There are a lot of things to prepare when celebrating the Lunar New Year (as opposed to the Solar New Year, which is overrated), but perhaps the most important is the food.
There are tons of traditional New Year’s dishes in China, from turnip cake and steamed chicken to niangao and dumplings. However, this year, we’ll be focusing on two other countries with strong traditions, Vietnam and Korea.
In Korea, the Lunar New Year is called Seollal, which means the first day of the New Year. Koreans take their New Year’s food seriously, setting up a table full of traditional dishes and often holding a ritual for their ancestors.
In Vietnam, the New Year is called Tết Nguyên Đán, which translates to “Feast of the First Morning,” but it is more commonly referred to as Tết. In Vietnamese, to celebrate Tết (“ăn Tết”) literally means to “eat Tết.” Can you guess that food might play some kind of role here?
Both countries have their specialty dishes, which retain much of the symbolism of the holiday. In Korea, the dish is tteokguk. In Vietnam, it is banh chung.
Below, we’ll take a look at these and a few other foods used in each country’s celebrations.
Tteokguk: the most meaningful dish during Korea’s Seollal is tteokguk, which are essentially thinly sliced, oval rice cakes in a clear broth. Tteokguk can be served with dumplings, beef, clams, seaweed, eggs, and more.
According to a World Food News article, there is a custom of saying “How many bowls of tteokguk have you eaten?” to ask a person’s age. Children, perhaps too eager to grow up, will eat several tteokguks in the hope that they’ll become adults sooner.
In a Korea Times article, staff writer Shim Hyun-chul describes the rice cake used to make tteokguk, which is made long and is symbolic of wishing for longevity in life. The oval shape of the rice cakes, which resembles coins, is another expression, which means wishing for wealth and prosperity.
Galbijjim (braised short ribs): Beef or pork short ribs are a staple Korean dish, and no Korean holiday meal would be complete without them. Daily Beast guest columnist and TV personality Kelly Choi says the table on New Year’s is decorated with several entrees and side dishes to symbolize prosperity and bounty. Ribs, of course, fall under that category.
Japchae: Another usual suspect on the Korean dinner table, according to Choi. Japchae is a dish composed of savory glass noodles, beef, and veggies. According to a New York Times blog entry, “The Temporary Vegetarian: Jap Chae, Korean Noodles,” people will eat japchae for longevity.
Hangwa: A traditional Korean candy, hangwa is commonly made of grain flour, honey, sugar, and fruit or edible root. The candy has a lot of history. According to a Korea Times article by Noh Hyun-gi, hangwa can be traced back to the Three-Kingdom Period (57 B.C.-688 A.D.) with accounts of royalty eating various types of hangwa during ceremonies. The candy has also seen its fair share of “controversy.” The sweets have been banned by kings multiple times, with punishments for eating them being 80 “gonjang,” or lashes with a bamboo rod.
Bánh Chưng: bánh chưng, a rice cake wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with mung bean and pork, is the Vietnamese traditional New Year’s dish and takes from hours to days to make. The process is so involved that many families no longer participate in the tradition of making it — which requires soaking the rice overnight, stuffing everything in the banana leaves, and simmering them in foil for hours — and instead will buy them at the store.
The dish is tied to a legend. It is said that the 18th Prince of Hung was looking for a successor and decided that he would create a contest between his 22 sons. The contest would be to find or make a food dish in tribute to the ancestors. Whoever had the best and most meaningful dish would win.
While 21 sons went off around the world searching far and wide, one son, prince Lang Lieu, stayed home. Long story short, he ended up making two cakes out of rice, wrapped in banana leaves. One was round (Bánh Tét), to represent the sky, and the other was square (Bánh Chưng), to represent the earth. In the end, for the powerful meaning behind his simple dishes, Lieu was chosen as the successor.
Thịt Heo Kho: Fatty pork stomach and boiled eggs stewed in coconut juice. Author Monique Trong, a Vietnamese American, half-jokes in her New York Times blog “Ravenous” that pork is as important to Vietnamese as water.
“The slow cooking transforms them in different ways, and it’s the interplay of textures — the molten fat, the toothsome, caramelized meat — that makes this dish a Vietnamese classic,” she writes.
Thịt Gà Luộc: A boiled or steamed chicken is essential for Tet meals, according to Vietnamonline.com, because all tribute meals to ancestors must feature a chicken, whole or chopped. The chicken is often served with sticky rice and banh chung.
Hạt Dưa: While Americans traditionally spit out the black watermelon seeds, in Vietnam, they are dried and roasted. According to a Vietnam Online article, the seeds are actually extremely nutritious, containing protein, glucid, lipid, Vitamins B1, B2, E, calcium, iron, zinc, and more. Supposedly, according to the article, eating a handful of hat dua every day can enhance memory and protect from coronary heart disease.
Mứt: Mứt are colorful, candied fruits that are synonymous with Tết. Traditionally handmade (though now available at convenience stores), the ingredients are surprisingly healthy, according to Vietnam.com. “Coconut, ginger, sweet potato, kumquat, tamarind, and pineapple are the usual fruits made into Mứt Tết, which have the health benefits of relieving flatulence, sore throat, and stress, promotes digestion and good sleep, and eases hangovers.”
Rather than being a part of the main meal, Mứt tends to be a welcoming snack for visitors, often eaten with tea. (end)
Zachariah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com.