Vietnamese Food: Inviting the Ancestors for Tet
By Mai Pham, Author of Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table
Noted Vietnamese cookbook author, Mai Pham, describes the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year - preparing traditional Vietnamese food and ceremonies.
Around Tet (Vietnamese New Year), a whole chicken is a prized food. Symbolizing abundance and prosperity, it sits prominently on the ancestor worship altar, along with the flowers, candles and incense sticks. Since Tet combines the spirit of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and everyone's birthday (a person is considered one year older on this day) all in one, our family goes to great lengths to welcome our ancestors into our home.
Raised in a traditional Vietnamese home, I was taught that our ancestors are as important as, if not more important than, living members of the family. Because their presence and blessings are considered critical to our well-being, we involve them in our everyday life, remembering them through daily offerings of food and prayers, and inviting them to join us for important holidays.
We were taught that by connecting with them, our purpose in life would become clear. We were told that every deed and action affects the whole family - including those who have passed on. A good deed makes them happy and proud and therefore eager to watch over us. On the other hand, a misdeed is considered an act of dishonor, a serious offense to the family lineage. Growing up with such taboos and belief systems, I never once dared jeopardize that tradition or embarrass the family in any way.
So, on the first day of Tet, we prepare a sumptuous meal to ruoc ong ba (welcome back the ancestors). Besides whole chicken, we cook dozens of other enticing dishes such as Caramelized Garlic Shrimp and a a traditional pork stew with hard-boiled eggs called thit kho dua. For dessert, we serve che khoai mon (sticky rice pudding with taro root) and fresh fruits like watermelon and tangerines. A small portion of each dish is then placed as an offering on the altar.
When we light the incense and say our prayers, the spirits are invoked and the ancestors begin their journey back to Earth. In our prayers, we thank them for watching over us and giving us good luck and health. It is only after these prayers that we can begin to eat.
Then, on the third day of Tet, when the ancestors get ready to depart, we prepare another extravagant send-off meal, this time with different dishes and wine. Towards the end of the ritual, we all go outside and gather around our parents and watch as they dutifully burn beautifully decorated paper tunics and clothes and even symbolic paper money - items which our ancestors will need in Heaven. And once our ancestors are gone, we go back to our own lives but with the lingering thoughts of Tet and a strong reminder that we must, as always, live up to their expectations.