Old tradition, New Year

When the Vietnamese say 'Come eat Tet with us,' they're serving rice cakes

By Devra First
Globe Staff / February 6, 2008

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CANTON - In the tiny kitchen at Viet Grill, Gam Nguyen is making banh tet. It's almost the Vietnamese New Year, Tet - the holiday begins tomorrow - and these rice bundles are essential fare.

Nguyen, her cheerful face peering out from beneath the cap her hair is tucked into, sets a few banana leaves down on a counter. She takes a handful of uncooked sweet rice, soaked overnight, from a bowl at her side and spreads it in the center of the leaves. On top of that goes a handful of yellow mung beans. Then a layer of fatty raw pork, another layer of mung beans, and another layer of rice. She rolls it all up in the leaves and ties it shut with red plastic string.

When the banh tet are assembled, they go into a giant pot of water. And there Nguyen leaves them, boiling away, for at least nine hours, the pork fat dissolving into the rice and mung beans as it cooks, enriching the other ingredients. When they're ready to be eaten, you unpeel the leaves and lop off a round. Slices can be eaten as is or pan-fried; they're often accompanied by pickled leeks, as well as the omnipresent fish sauce. Wrapped, the packages look like big green burritos. Cut, they look like big sushi rolls.

Nguyen is from the southern part of the country; in the north the cakes are called banh chung and are flat and square. The dishes of Tet differ slightly from region to region, but everyone eats rice cakes. Vietnamese people have been doing so for thousands of years, according to legend. It wouldn't be the holiday without them.

"Our rice cake is exactly like American turkey," says Nguyen's husband, Tan Doan, with whom she runs the restaurant. "It's just like at your Thanksgiving."

The holiday itself is also a lot like Thanksgiving, only bigger. "It's the equivalent of Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas combined," says Nicole Routhier, author of award-winning cookbook "The Foods of Vietnam," by phone from Houston. From far and wide, people head home to be with family and pay respects to their ancestors. (Tet is the lunar New Year also celebrated in China, where storms have wreaked havoc with holiday travel this year.) Needless to say, food is central - so much so that people don't say they celebrate Tet, they say they "eat Tet."

"When people greet each other, instead of asking 'How are you?' they say, 'Have you eaten Tet yet?' or 'Come eat Tet with us,' " Routhier says. It's a time to share the abundance of the table. "For a lot of families, all year long they would save for this one time of the year, when no food is too expensive for them, when they can really indulge. Everything eaten during this time of celebration - anything you eat or do, your actions - is believed to directly affect your fortune for the coming year."

And so the dishes aren't just cooked for taste, but also for symbolism. Chickens and fish are prepared whole, head and all, representing the wholeness and unity of the family. Anything red - watermelon, or dried and dyed watermelon seeds - is good, because red brings good luck. And those seeds represent fertility.

The New Year's rice cakes have meaning, too. The square shape of banh chung represents the earth - when people first started making them, that whole "earth is round" thing hadn't caught on yet. The sticky rice represents family cohesiveness, holding the filling inside. And the yellow mung beans, says Routhier, are the equivalent of black-eyed peas in the American South. They are said to bring good luck. Or maybe the rice stands for fertility and the yellow of the mung beans represents wealth and royalty. It depends whom you ask - many symbols are open to interpretation.

Whichever way you slice it, though, the New Year's rice cake is practical. "It's a poor country," says Doan. "We had no refrigerator. We would keep it outside."

"In a banana leaf, cooked, rice cakes could hang in the pantry for up to a month," Routhier says. "It shows how genius the old cooks were. They came up with a way to preserve that rice cake without refrigeration."

Old cooks, indeed. If you believe the folktales about their invention, the rice cakes have been around since many centuries B.C. In the version Routhier sweetly tells me, as if she's reading a bedtime story, there was a king who couldn't make up his mind which of two sons to name as his successor. One son was gung-ho and ambitious, the other reserved and respectful. One night, it came to the king in a dream that he should ask both sons to come up with the best gift they could possibly give him, and then decide based on their offerings. The next day, he told the sons the plan. The ambitious one set out on a journey all over the country, collecting the most precious gems and riches to bring back to his father. The reserved son thought about his father, who loved to eat, and decided to come up with the most delicious dish he could. He created the rice cakes, staying up all night to cook them. The king, of course, was touched by this son's love and thoughtfulness and chose him as his successor. (In some versions, in order to decide, the king asks both sons to come up with the tastiest dish they can - the appetite as history's arbiter.) Since then, Vietnamese people have eaten these rice cakes at New Year.

Making them was once a group activity that brought the family, or even the whole village, together to assemble and cook the rice cakes in big drums of water over outdoor fires. Someone would stay awake all night and keep the fire going. "When I was a boy, I loved Tet," Doan says. "We'd do this in the back yard or the front yard. I helped my parents. I would do the fire with the wood. When I fell asleep, my older brother took care of the fire."

Now, more and more people buy their rice cakes instead of making them. At Ba Le Cafe in Dorchester's Fields Corner, they'll be selling them through today, if they last. They fly off the shelves. "If you want to buy them, come early," says Angela Ching, who works there. "People buy a lot."

You can pan fry the banh tet to reheat them, but you don't have to. "I put it in the microwave," Doan says.

Modern convenience comes to an age-old tradition.

Devra First can be reached at