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

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.

If Those Eyelids Were The Shutter To My Camera

It’s been a while since I posted my random photos of life, and writing is taking up too much of my energy right now (man, I remembered having to write two new scripts while working on a rewrite and a treatment, all in one semester, back in grad school. How did I do it?) so here’s a lazy post for you guys. Enjoy, and have a great weekend!

My newest charge – the chickens

Green bean flowers

A longhorn beetle I found. He wasn’t happy, as you can see by his flailing legs, so I let him go immediately

Who knows that chive flowers can be this lovely?

Yummy food from Joma Bakery

Just another day on public transportation in Hanoi… when the passengers have to get down and push the bus

And of course, no photo post would be complete without the obligatory cat pictures

P/S: The post title is from Athlete’s Magical Mistakes. Sometimes I do wish my eyelids were the shutter to a camera, because then I would be able to capture a lot more awesome moments and beautiful things around me.

Tam Dao

Here are some pictures from our exile in Tam Dao (the name means “Three Islets”, because there are three mountains in the area.) I called it an exile because this is a resort town mainly for people from Hanoi and surrounding cities, which means that while we were there, there was absolutely no one around except for the locals. We saw a few weekenders on Saturday and we were all like “OMG! People!” I had to tell the locals that Debbi and I were here for research (which isn’t a lie, technically) so they would stop giving us weird looks. The trouble is, we stayed at the guest house of the Institute of Biology, so they all thought we were biologists. I mean, I could pass for a botanist, but Debbi and I both sucked at biology back in high school. Thank God nobody asked any biology-related question, or it would’ve been awkward.

It was really foggy all week, and the place is filled with horror-worthy buildings like these

It’s also filled with cute doggies, lovely flowers…

… and the hairiest caterpillars I’ve ever seen

The bugs were so attracted to Debbi that she had to have dinner under a mosquito net

The market on Saturday…

… and Monday

Ha Long Bay, part III

Final part! On our last day on Cat Ba Island, I went hiking in the National Park, while Debbi, who isn’t keen on the idea of being eaten alive by mosquitoes and land leeches (not that I got eaten by them, but bugs do find her more delicious than me :P), lounged around at the beach.

You can’t see it in the photo, but there was a swarm of mosquitoes around my head

What’s a crab doing in the forest?

Ha Long Bay, part II

More pictures from Cat Ba, when we visited the Cannon Fort with its cannons and tunnels, got a ride around the island on motorbikes, and took a boat around the bay to Monkey Island.

It was pitch black when we went down this tunnel, so I took a photo with flash to make sure there was no monster waiting inside

A floating fishing village. Some of the villagers go for years without setting foot on land

I love that the fishing boats around the bay are all painted in really bright colors

Draw me like one of your French girls

Ha Long Bay, part I

Debbi and I had a great time in Ha Long Bay. We stayed on Cat Ba Island, the biggest island south of the bay, and again, I was so glad we chose to go in the off-season instead of during the summer, because the place was nearly deserted and everything was so much cheaper. Also, we were blessed with sunshine for three whole days! It’s funny, but we did get the perfect weather for whatever place we were going to – when we were in Sapa it was cold and rainy, which is perfect for the mountain, and when we were at the beach it was warm and sunny.

On the first day, we got to the island after a 5-hour bus and boat ride, had a quick lunch, then headed straight for the beach. I’m not much of a beach person (oh who am I kidding? I’m not a beach person at all), but when we got to the quiet little crescent of sand with its sun and wind and emerald water, even I wanted to go swimming. Of course then I remembered that I can’t swim, so I just waded a little bit and did some beach combing. Afterward we walked along the cliff that rises up from the sea back to town, enjoyed the view of the bay, and had dinner at a floating restaurant. It was a good first day.

My feet and Debbi’s feet… where they should be

CSI: Ha Long Bay

My beach-combing haul

And here’s the highlight of the day – a hilarious mistranslated menu (we didn’t go into this restaurant. We didn’t feel like eating people who are already being held prisoners by, uh, Larry the Cable Guy?)