Each year when celebrations for the Lunar New Year begin in Orange County, I’m reminded of the cultural tour I took of Little Saigon with my friend Monique to learn about Tet traditions during the Lunar New Year.
We met at the ABC Supermarket shopping center at Bolsaand Brookhurst in what’s known as Little Saigon in Westminster. The Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in Vietnamese culture and its traditions are passed down from one generation to the next.
Always curious about the foods that play an important role in cultural traditions, I attended a cooking demonstration by Chef Haley Nguyen of Xanh Bistro in Fountain Valley, CA, where I learned about the legend behind Banh Chung, how the rice cakes are made, and how it became a symbol of Tet.
A traditional food gift for the Lunar New Year, Chef Haley Nguyen demonstrated the fine art of wrapping the square cakes of rice, mung bean and pork in banana leaves and then boiling them. In front of a small, but avid group of Vietnamese food and culture lovers, she shared a bit of the legend behind banh chung: rice is the staff of life for the people and the banana leaves signify the love of parents who would always protect their children; and the difference between square and round shapes (square cakes represent life on earth and is the tradition in northern Vietnam and the round shape stands for heaven above and is from the south).
Preparations for Chinese New Year (also known as Lunar New Year, Tet Festival, and Spring Festival) and welcoming the Year of the Dragon on January 23rd, have been underway for weeks in Asian households around the world. Although the Lunar New Year is observed in all of East Asia influenced by Chinese civilization, each country celebrates it in a way unique to that country. For the Vietnamese and Chinese people, 2012 is the Year of the Dragon (it doesn’t always coincide with the Chinese animal). Being born in the Year of the Dragon is considered most desirable, especially for boys, as the Dragon has been the symbol of royalty for thousands of years and is believed to bring luck, strength, royalty, wisdom, and a promising future.
Only 10:30 a.m. and traffic was backed up on Brookhurst and the parking lot was swarming with erratic drivers looking for a spot. I parked way in the back.
Flowers are an important part of decorating a home for Chinese New Year. Plum blossom and water narcissus are the two flowers most associated with the New Year.
In the midst of the crush of shoppers and staccato sounds of a foreign language, were two monks walking, eyes cast downward, moving silently amongst the crowd carrying a bamboo container tucked under their robes, discreetly revealed only when a passer-by offers a few dollars.
Tangerines, oranges and pomelos are frequently displayed in homes and stores. Tangerines are symbolic of good luck and oranges are symbolic of wealth. The first store we entered had a tangerine tree decorated with lai-see envelopes (also called hong-bao). Money is placed inside the red envelopes and given to children and young adults as gifts.
Traditional Tet gifts given to families are rice cakes called banh chung made from white rice, marinated strips of pork, and yellow mung beans. I wanted to photograph Monique making a traditional New Years’ food but she told me that everyone buys Banh Chung in stores now because they are too labor intensive to make at home. A touching article by Ky-Phong Tran in the Orange County Register recalls memories of his grandfather making the rice cakes every New Year – the only thing he ever made – and how this tradition was his father’s way of reaching back 35 years and 8,000 miles to his childhood in the homeland.
Colorful containers of candies and nuts are given as gifts during Tet. You can see stacks of them in every food store,
From here we went to the fruit market where Monique identified the exotic fruits for me and described their taste and how they’re eaten. There was dragon fruit, an exotic lemon that looks like it has “fingers”, gigantic jack fruit whose seeds are boiled and taste like chestnuts, prickly durian that’s called “stinky fruit” and has a custardy filling. I bought a package of mangostine. To eat, they are cracked open to reveal white fruit segments similar to an orange.
Monique purchased some traditional Vietnamese desserts, made from rice and similar to what we know as tapioca or rice pudding, and bought plum blossoms for her home from a familiar vendor with a better price than the ones we priced earlier.
More commotion erupted when the police and zoning people arrived and vendors were told that they couldn’t be spilling over into the fire lane and some were sent packing because they had no sellers license.
The week ahead brings the parades and pageantry of Tet Festival followed by 10 days of celebrating the Year of the Dragon with family and friends.
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!