Year Of The Dog

Happy Lunar New Year! It’s the Year of the Dog, so here is a picture of my dog looking all prim and proper and not her usual goofy self:

And some shots of the celebration and decorations:

My grandma’s house, decorated with the traditional kumquat tree

Traditional altar at my grandma’s house – the sugar canes are supposed to be walking sticks for the spirits of our ancestors

Chưng cakes ready to be boiled

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have food to eat and packing to do. There will be SIA posts up next week, so stay tuned!

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Year Of The Rooster

It’s not the Year of the Rooster until tomorrow, but I know I would be too busy celebrating (i.e. stuffing my face), so here are some photos from yesterday’s Lunar New Year market that I went with my sister. This year, my dad was so busy that all of our preparations were done beforehand, so there wasn’t that exciting rush in the few days leading up to the New Year. To make up for it, my sister and I decided to go to the Old Quarter to check out the traditional market there – not because we needed to buy anything, but because we simply wanted to bask in that atmosphere. It was quite fun, but insanely crowded. I probably wouldn’t brave it if my sister hadn’t insisted.

lunar new year market by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year market by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year market by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year market by 14 shades of greyAn often-encountered sight around the Lunar New Year: huge pots of chưng cakes boiling away

lunar new year market by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year market by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year market by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year market by 14 shades of grey
Antique stalls

lunar new year market by 14 shades of greyPiggy banks (kids are often given piggy banks at the start of a new year, for their lucky money)

lunar new year market by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year market by 14 shades of greyThese are not a Lunar New Year thing, but they’re too delicious not to be included – donut holes

So anyway, Happy the Year of the Rooster! I’ll be back next week with (hopefully) a couple of outfit posts!

year of the roosterOriginal art by my niece


Happy Year of the Goat!

You know how I often complain that Vietnam doesn’t have enough food-based holidays? I think I know why now. It’s because the Lunar New Year is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Super Bowl all rolled into one. I’m currently stuffing my face and have been for the last three days or so. We had kind of a pre-New Year feast last weekend (when we made the rice cakes), we had one last night (for New Year’s Eve), we had one today (for New Year), and we’re going to have another one the day after tomorrow (for the end of the Lunar New Year holiday). So please, enjoy the photos of the feasts, the spring flowers in our garden, and the firework display, while I go sleep this off.

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

kalanchoe flower by 14 shades of grey

camelia by 14 shades of grey

chrysanthemum by 14 shades of grey

camelias by 14 shades of greychrysanthemums by 14 shades of grey

camelia and bees by 14 shades of greypeach blossoms by 14 shades of grey

barbeque by 14 shades of greysticky rice by 14 shades of grey

barbequed meat by 14 shades of greyBarbequed pork and sticky rice cooked in bamboo stalks

new year feast by 14 shades of greynew year feast by 14 shades of grey
Bamboo shoot soup and sticky rice

new year feast by 14 shades of greyGlass noodle salad

new year feast by 14 shades of greynew year feast by 14 shades of grey
Slow-cooked pork and spring rolls

new year feast by 14 shades of greyBeef and vegetable stir-fry

new year feast by 14 shades of greyBraised chicken

firework by 14 shades of grey

firework by 14 shades of greyfirework by 14 shades of grey
Yeah, that’s a smiley face/Joker firework

firework by 14 shades of grey


Lunar New Year: The Celebration

The last in the Lunar New Year posts is some pictures of the fireworks (we’re lucky to live close to the National Stadium where the biggest firework display is), and of course, the most important part of any holiday (in my opinion, at least) – the food. I was lucky I remembered to take photos of the food at all before they were all consumed. Sorry they look kinda like stock photos with no people – my family are all camera-shy I’m afraid 🙂

lunar new year - fireworks - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - fireworks - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - fireworks - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - candied fruits - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - feast - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - feast - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - rice cake - by 14 shades of grey

And that’s it! Happy the year of the Snake!


Lunar New Year: The Decorations

The Lunar New Year is officially over, but we still have the rest of the week off. Before getting back to regular posting, I’m going to share with you a few (read: a lot) photos of the New Year. First up is the decorations. There are two things that can’t be absent in a home during Lunar New Year: a branch of peach tree blossoms (in the northern part; in the South people prefer a yellow-flowered tree called Ochna, or “mai” in Vietnamese) and a kumquat tree.  We also decorate with a lot of fresh flowers, both inside the house and outside.

lunar new year - decoration - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - kumquat tree - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - gladioli - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - tulip - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - delphinium - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - peach blossoms - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - roses - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - chrysanthemum - by 14 shades of grey

Of course, that means that the flower market was always crowded the day before New Year’s Eve.

lunar new year - kumquat trees - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - kumquat tree - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - camellia - by 14 shades of grey

People sometimes also hang up traditional woodcut paintings and calligraphy prints, but our family have our own tradition: a collage of that year’s zodiac sign – which this year is a snake – that we made from scraps of magazines and colored paper. We started making them when I was in first grade; we have all 12 animals now, so instead of making new ones, we just add to the old paintings pictures of some “events” that happened in our family during the previous year – like my niece’s third birthday, for example. Making these collages on New Year’s Eve is a fun little ritual that we have.

lunar new year - dragon - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - snake - by 14 shades of grey


Lunar New Year: Rice Cakes

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

It’s Lunar New Year this weekend, my first Lunar New Year at home in seven years. Back in LA, I did have some sort of celebration every year, but it could never compare to actually being at home for it – the bustling streets filled with peach blossoms and kumquat trees, the nippy cold (it’s been annoyingly warm these last two weeks, but as luck would have it, it’s going to cool down tomorrow), the smell of incense in the air, the excitement of preparing food and decorating the house… It’s better than Christmas, because with Christmas even when you’re not with your family you can still feel the atmosphere, but with Lunar New Year, you pretty much have to be in the country where it’s widely celebrated (Chinatown doesn’t count) to get the truest sense of the holiday.

Anyway, one of my favorite traditions of the Lunar New Year is the making of rice cakes (bánh chưng). It’s a cake made of sticky rice, mung bean paste, and pork, wrapped in arrowroot leaves and boiled. It may sound simple, but there are a lot of little details involved, from the quality of the ingredients to how you wrap and boil the cakes, to get the perfect rice cakes – everything tender but not mushy, the rice green from the arrowroot leaves, the bean paste bright yellow, the pork cooked through but still pink. Here is how my family makes our rice cakes (it’s not an actual recipe because everything is eyeballed, but I thought it’d be fun to share with you guys):

arrowroot leaves by 14 shades of greyarrowroot leaves by 14 shades of grey

sticky rice by 14 shades of grey

pork by 14 shades of grey

What You Need:
– Three parts sticky rice, one part mung beans, one part fatty pork (we usually do 6 kg of rice; 3 cups of rice per cake)
– Fish sauce, salt, pepper, onions or shallot
– Arrowroot leaves (you need at least four per cake), bamboo strings

Instructions:
1. Soak the rice and the beans up to 12 hours. Let dry, salt them well. Cut the pork into two-inch pieces. Marinate the pork in fish sauce, pepper, and onions.

2. Steam the beans, mash them into a paste (it looks a lot like mash potatoes actually.)

3. Now you’re ready to wrap the cake! There are a lot of ways to wrap a rice cake, but since the cakes have to be a perfect square, most people like to most a mold. My dad usually cuts the arrowroot leaves (carefully washed and dried) and folds them into a box. It’s a little more complicated than using a mold, but it’s easier to wrap once you get the box shape down. Put in a cup of rice, then a layer of bean paste, a couple of pieces of pork, followed by another layer of bean paste and another layer of rice. Make sure that the leaves are touching the rice on the right side, or the cake won’t be green enough. Fold the tops of your “box” down and secure it with bamboo strings.

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of greyIt’s much more difficult to wrap it like this, without a mold or shaping the leaves into a box first

4. You can also wrap the cakes the Southern way – simply lay down the leaves, put the ingredients on top, and roll it all up into a cylinder. But then it’s called bánh tét instead of bánh chưng.

rice cakes by 14 shades of greyrice cakes by 14 shades of grey

5. Put your cakes into a cauldron that’s been lined with more arrowroot leaves, put in enough water to cover them, and boil them. The boiling time depends on how many cakes you have, of course, but with 20 cakes, we always have to boil them for at least 12 hours. The cauldron is important too – cauldrons made out of zinc are best because they keep the leaves green (as you can see below); aluminum will turn them an unappetizing brownish yellow.

rice cakes cauldron by 14 shades of greyrice cakes by 14 shades of grey
No, that’s not some witch’s cauldron

And that’s about it. We’ve only cut one of the mini cakes my dad made for my niece from leftovers, saving the big ones for the Lunar New Year feast on Monday, but as far as we can tell, they all turned out perfectly. OK, I’m off to finish cleaning up, so have a great weekend everybody! I know I will.


Insect Festival

Well, right after I said that small details in life are not worth blogging, I found something about my home life to talk about: all the little lunar festivals that we celebrate. You may all have heard about the Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, but here’s something I bet you don’t know much about: today is the 5th of the 5th lunar month, and it’s a day we call Tết Đoan Ngọ (similar to the Chinese Duanwu Festival). Colloquially in Vietnam we call it “Insect Festival”, because this is the time when harmful bugs are the most active, so we have to exterminate them to prepare for the new crops.


A rhinoceros beetle who wandered into our kitchen a couple of weeks ago. FYI, I set him free

There are a lot of old traditions for this festival which are now lost – according to my mom, my grandma used to bind her hands with henna leaves the night before so her fingers would turn red the next morning, and would also prevent infection when planting rice in the paddy fields. The festival is mostly about food now, but aren’t the best festivals always about food? We’d eat bánh tro (literally “ash cake”, a kind of sweet rice cake flavored with ash water), rượu nếp (fermented sticky rice), and all the seasonal fresh fruits. Rượu nếp, especially, is a must for this festival. If you’ve ever had rice wine, you’ll have an idea of what this tastes like – rice soaked in sweet wine, soft on the inside and a bit chewy on the outside.

For today my family only has rượu nếp (eaten with yogurt – not traditional, but it tastes really good), boiled peanuts, and fruits – plums, lychee, dragon fruit, and rose apple, which is my favorite. This is what I love about life at home: there are traditions everywhere, so everything has a special meaning. Or maybe I just like eating (like my sister says, “It’s the bug festival so I have to feed the bugs in my stomach!”)