TRINH NGUYEN’S FIRST memories of celebrating Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, are set in a refugee camp in Thailand. She was 3 years old when her family left Vietnam by boat. They spent seven years in the camp, along with a few thousand other refugees. Her brother Thai Nguyen was born there.
For the Lunar New Year, Trinh recalls everyone at the camp pitching in “like a family” to make bánh chưng, the sticky rice cakes traditionally eaten at Tết. The bundles of rice filled with pork belly and mung beans must be meticulously wrapped and tied, and then simmered for hours. At the camp, “They were making thousands of packets of sticky rice,” Trinh recalls. “It took weeks. They wanted to make enough so everyone had one.”
Thai’s earliest Tết memories are of the night market in Vietnam, where the family returned briefly from 1996 to 1998 after the refugee camp closed. As a 5-year-old, he was entranced with the lantern displays and fireworks, and excited to receive the red envelopes filled with cash that only married members of the family are entitled to hand out. The money would fund market forays, as well as games of chance, where you could test the potential for good fortune in the new year. “If you win a lot of money, that supposedly means you’ll be really lucky,” says Thai.
This year, Feb. 1 ushers in the Year of the Tiger. To celebrate, the Nguyen siblings will serve bánh chưng, along with another traditional Tết dish, Thịt kho măng (braised pork belly with bamboo shoots), at their restaurant Ba Sa on Bainbridge Island. They opened it in September 2019, a dream deferred, while Trinh, now 34, completed business school and Thai, now 29, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.
For Vietnamese people, Tết is the biggest holiday celebration of the year. It begins on the first night of the new moon in the first month of the lunar calendar — thus its formal name, Tết Nguyen Dan, meaning, “festival of the first morning of the first day.”
In Vietnamese homes, weeks of preparation lead up to Tết: A frenzy of housecleaning and renovation, of tossing out old things and buying new ensues, anticipating a new beginning and the opportunity to make a fresh start. The feasting, fireworks and general revelry last for days.
Many Tết customs revolve around good luck omens and rituals. Markets sell houseplants that are thought to bring luck. People make sure there is no trash in the house, so it doesn’t sully the new year. When Trinh and Thai were younger, they recall their mother’s efforts to curtail squabbling among her four children by telling them if you fight on Tết, you’ll be fighting all year. (It didn’t really work, they say.) Many of the traditional holiday foods symbolize good fortune, and prosperity, too, like the candied fruit whose vibrant hues bring the promise of an exciting new year.
Feasting begins on the morning of the first day and continues for at least three days. In Vietnam, where Tết is a public holiday, businesses close for a week, giving employees time to travel to be with their families. The Nguyens don’t have far to go to be with their mom and dad, Huyen Tran and Rang Nguyen, and their other two other siblings, Joseph Nguyen and Linda Nguyen, who operate Pho T&N in Poulsbo, the restaurant their parents founded in 2005, seven years after settling in the United States.
With two restaurants in the family, the Nguyens celebrate a shorter version of Tết. Everyone is busier here, they say, and many churches and temples make rice cakes for the community, with the proceeds supporting the church. Trinh, who spent a lot of time as a young girl in the kitchen learning to cook with her aunties and mom, worries the knowledge might be lost to future generations. “I don’t know how many people our age and younger know how to make these dishes,” she says. (Earlier this month, Trinh and Yenvy Pham of Seattle restaurant Phở Bắc teamed up to teach a tutorial on how to make bánh chưng and bánh tét “to ensure our tradition doesn’t die with our generation.”)
Rather than close Ba Sa for an extended holiday, the Nguyens view Tết as an opportunity to share a little of their culture with their customers. In addition to offering traditional Vietnamese New Year’s dishes, they’ll decorate the restaurant with lanterns and maybe even hand out some red envelopes with new dollar bills inside. When both restaurants are closed, they’ll celebrate as a family with food, fun and games. “That’s the heart of the Tết celebration,” Trinh says. “Going back to your roots, really knowing your beginnings, where you came from, and reconnecting with your extended family.”
Bánh Chưng (Tết Sticky Rice Cakes)
Makes 3 rice cakes, 4 to 8 servings each
2 packages bamboo leaves
1½ pounds pork belly
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
1½ tablespoons sea salt, divided
1 cup mung beans
3 cups long-grain or short sticky rice
1 tablespoon pandan extract
3 tablespoons shallots, sliced
1 tablespoon oil
1 square bánh chưng mold (12 cm by 12 cm)
The night before:
1. Soak the bamboo leaves in a big mixing bowl under cold water.
2. Cut the bamboo leaves precisely for folding: 12 pieces of 30 cm by 12 cm; 6 pieces of 30 cm by 12 cm; 12 pieces of 15 cm by 5 cm; and 6 pieces of 12 cm by 12 cm.
3. Cut the pork belly into 2-inch-by-4-inch pieces. Each piece should have some fat and skin. Add to a mixing bowl with fish sauce, pepper, sugar and 1 tablespoon salt. Allow to marinate overnight.
4. In another mixing bowl, soak mung beans in cold water overnight.
5. In another mixing bowl, soak sticky rice with ½ tablespoon salt and pandan extract.
The next morning:
1. Fill a Chinese steamer with water, and bring it to a boil. Drain the mung beans in a colander, and set them aside. Drain the rice in a colander. Drain the bamboo leaves, rinse and set aside.
2. Add the shallots to a small sauté pan with oil, and stir until the shallots are golden brown.
To assemble the cakes:
1. Use a bánh chưng mold to make each cake with the cut bamboo leaves. Line the four 30 cm by 12 cm bamboo leaves with the shiny part facing out. Then line two of the 30 cm by 12 cm ones on the inside, one on top of another. Line four 15 cm by 5 cm ones on the corners of the mold to prevent it from leaking while boiling. Use one 12 cm by 12 cm to cover the top and bottom of the cake.
2. Layer the ingredients in the mold: ½ cup rice, 2 tablespoons mung beans, 1 piece pork belly, 1 tablespoon fried shallot, 2 tablespoons mung bean and ½ cup rice to top it off. Make sure the mung beans and the pork belly are evenly coated with the sticky rice. Fold the bamboo leaves, and tuck the last leaf in to close the fold. Use cooking-grade twine to tie the cake together.
3. Repeat the same process for the remaining 2 cakes.
4. Fill a 20-quart stockpot half full of water. Place a bowl upside down in the pot to keep the rice cakes from scorching on the bottom of the pot. Stack the cakes on the bowl, one on top of another. Cover the cakes with water, and keep them fully submerged. To keep the cakes from floating, place a heavy plate or bowl over them. Bring the water to a boil, then turn down to simmer. To keep the simmer consistent, add boiling water as needed, and make sure the cakes are always covered in water.
5. Boil the cakes for 7 hours, and then transfer to an ice bath to cool. Press cakes between two sheet pans to squeeze out the excess water. They may be refrigerated for up to two weeks or frozen. Steam or microwave rice cakes to warm before serving.
Pro tip: Use an Instant Pot at the meat stew/high-pressure setting for 40 minutes, then flip the cakes and repeat for another 40 minutes.
— Nguyen family, Ba Sa restaurant, Bainbridge Island
Thịt Kho Măng (Braised Pork and Bamboo Shoots)
3 lbs. pork belly
½ cup “3 Crab” brand fish sauce
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 tablespoons garlic, minced, divided
2 tablespoon shallots, minced, divided
Caramel sauce (1 tablespoon sugar and 1 tablespoon oil)
1 lb. young bamboo shoots
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups water
1 can coconut soda
Sticky Rice Cakes (see recipe above)
Pickled pearl onions, as garnish
1. Clean the pork by heating up a pot of water. Bring it to a boil. Add pork belly, and wait for it to come back to a boil. Remove the pork from the pot, and rinse under water. Slice pork into 2-by-2-inch pieces.
2. In a mixing bowl. add pork belly, fish sauce, sugar, salt, black pepper, onion powder, a tablespoon of garlic, a tablespoon of shallots and caramel sauce. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature or overnight in the fridge for best results.
3. In the meantime, clean the young bamboo shoots, and cut them into 1-by-2-inch pieces. In a medium stockpot, add vegetable oil, a tablespoon of garlic and a tablespoon of shallots. Sauté until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. Add the marinated pork belly into the pot. Stir the pork belly until it has evenly cooked on the outside, about 4-5 minutes. Add the water and coconut soda to the pot. Turn heat to low-medium, and cook for 30 minutes. Add the bamboo shoots, and continue to cook on a low simmer for an additional 30 minutes.
To serve: Place a piece of the steamed Sticky Rice Cake in the bottom of a bowl, and spoon the braised pork and bamboo shoots over the top. Garnish with pickled pearl onions. Enjoy!
— Nguyen family, Ba Sa restaurant, Bainbridge Island