In the wake of rampant modernization, traditional rituals sometimes fade into obscurity, and Tet customs are no exception. With supermarkets and convenience stores mushrooming up on nearly every corner, old-fashioned and painstaking preparations for Tet treats are being overlooked by many families.
However, a movement has been growing, driven especially by the younger generation, to learn and preserve the long-established recipes of old Vietnam. Many are making Tet dishes such as square chưng cakes and pork terrine from scratch all over the country, a trend which is easy to spot on social media. Online groups are sharing information about where to procure the best ingredients and even sharing resources to grow their own vegetables or raise pigs and chickens. Despite chưng cakes and pork terrine being widely available on vendor stands, young friends and families are finding satisfaction in gathering together to wrap chưng cakes, make jams and prepare other treats in the run-up to Tet, just as their parents and grandparents did decades ago.
One such ritual has been taking place in Hanoi by a group of friends with the romantic name “The Dreamers,” These gatherings seek to capture the authentic spirit of Tet by making chưng cakes together, from the selection of bamboo leaves to the preparations of green beans, pork and glutinous rice to the practice of wrapping the cakes.
According to Ms. Anh Tuyet, a Hanoi gastronomist, increasing numbers of families and schools are asking her to pass on the secrets of traditional foods to young people. It’s not unusual to see stylish young city dwellers learning about recipes such as crab nem (spring rolls), pork skin soup or steamed pigeon with lotus seeds. The process is painstaking for many of these foods, which require numerous steps to prepare. The same applies to the wrapping of chưng cakes, which at first sight may look simple, but in fact requires great precision to make successfully.
In these training workshops, adults guide the young to first identify the ingredients such as bamboo leaves, plain rice and glutinous rice which best suit chưng cakes. Dong leaves are washed and dried on both sides to keep off water. Other additions are bamboo strings, perfectly white glutinous rice grains and unpeeled green beans that are then soaked in water first and then peeled by hand. When steamed, they yield better taste and texture than the peeled beans sold in supermarkets. Bacon is marinated with fish sauce and pepper and glutinous rice is soaked in cold water in 10 to 15 hours. The preparations of the wrapping alone take nearly one day, but the busy atmosphere makes for some the merriest and most rewarding moments of the Tet holiday.
In addition, younger people have also been keen on old-fashioned jam-making, with steps from the selection of fruits to peeling to soaking in slaked lime water and cooking with sugar. It can take several hours to make carrot jams of enchanting flavors and gentle pink colors, white coconut jams that resemble orchid petals coupled with a gentle vanilla scent, and other favorites. Set amidst the swirling incense of a household at Tet, the scents of sweet homemade jams always prove irresistible to family members, in contrast with their mass-produced versions.
For a full-course Tet feast, pairs of green chưng cakes and homemade jams aere dedicated to at ancestral altars. Those offering homeamde versions feel a sense of pride and because the treats are not just a gift but also a sign of diligence. Indeed, the memories of a traditional Tet celebration may linger in the mind longer because of the elaborate and meticulous preparations, rather than the feast itself.