Published On: Wed, Feb 14th, 2018

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Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year

Han Trinh is laying out her Tet feast on the kitchen table in her Scarborough home and she’s running out of room.

“Back home (in Vietnam), people aren’t really rich but for the New Year, people cook a lot of food using money they saved up all year,” she says. Meat is considered a luxury for many low-income families and pork is a popular Tet ingredient.

Trinh’s husband, Ngoc Duy Nguyen, a vice-president of Toronto’s http://www.vatoronto.ca/en/Vietnamese AssociationEND didn’t see meat on the dinner table for months at a time when he was growing up in southern Vietnam.

Nguyen and Trinh met and fell in love at a refugee camp in Indonesia after fleeing their homeland during the Vietnam War in the late ’70s. Nguyen moved to Canada while Trinh sought a new life in the U.S., but they vowed to reunite. They married in California and settled in Toronto. To pay tribute the country they left, they named their two sons Viet and Nam.

Trinh goes all out for Tet. She makes tender pork belly and egg stew, pork terrine (thit dong), spring rolls, head cheese, from the head meat and ears of the pig (gio thu), grilled sausage (cha) from finely ground pork spiced with cinnamon, and banh tet, a glutinous rice flavoured with mung beans, coconut cream, sugar and stuffed with bananas.

At the centre of the table is a beautiful package of banh chung, sticky rice stuffed with pork and mung beans, neatly wrapped in banana leaves. It’s served with a pickled vegetable platter (dua mon cu kieu) of carrots, daikon, cucumber and ramps (wild garlic).

There’s also stewed bitter melon stuffed with ground pork, mushrooms and mung bean noodles, a dish typically reserved for the New Year.

“Bitter melon is called ‘kho qua’ and in Vietnam that name translates to ‘suffering is over,’ ” she says. “The New Year is about starting fresh and being happier than the year you left behind.”

For dessert, a platter of candied ginger, sweet potatoes, carrot, winter melon, coconut and lotus seeds is served with a plate of watermelon seeds dyed a lucky red. There’s also the essential fruit display of sugar-apple, coconut, papaya and mango. In Vietnamese, when the names of these fruits are combined they form the phrase “cau dua du xai,” a wish for prosperity.

“For us, this isn’t just food,” Han says. “It’s about sharing with family and coming together. This is our culture.”

Losar, the Tibetan Lunar New Year

A whirlwind of cooking is taking place inside the kitchen of Loga’s Corner, a Tibetan restaurant in Parkdale’s Little Tibet neighbourhood. Husband-and-wife owners Loga and Dolma Yangchen recruited friends to prepare the foods needed to make for a Buddhist shrine to bless loved ones for the New Year.

“Every family will have a different altar and prepare different foods for Losar. There isn’t a compulsory dish or offering,” Loga says, wearing a traditional robe called a chuba. “The most important offering is the one from the heart.”

Loga’s family moved to Toronto in 2012 from the village of Bir in northern India, close to the Tibetan border. His parents fled Tibet in 1959, the same year the Dalai Lama went into exile in India after a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation forces.

A photo of the spiritual leader hangs over the table that family friend Dechen Dolma stacks with different types of khapse, delicate pieces of fried dough commonly served during Losar. The large ones at the bottom are called bhungu amchoe, which are also called Donkey Ears because of their shape. On top are bulug, thin strands of batter fried into a large disc. Scattered around the fried dough tower are smaller pieces of khapse called kaptog. Also on the altar are offerings of alcohol, cookies, chocolates, flowers, rice and butter, which represent the yaks that produce the milk in the Tibetan diet.

There’s a square brick of thue, which Dolma describes as Tibetan cheese. It is decorated with an ancient Buddhist symbol for good luck. Butter tea (po cha) is also on the table and dollops of butter are placed on the fruit for auspiciousness. To finish, seven bowls of water representing generosity and an intricately carved wooden box called a chemar bo filled with roasted barley flour and seeds are placed at the front. As people step in front of the altar to offer blessings, they nibble some of the seeds and throw a pinch of it into the air. Now it’s time to eat.

At the table, Loga passes around cups of chang, home-brewed sweet beer made of rice and barley. Giant bowls of slow-cooked beef ribs and steamed momos (dumplings stuffed with beef, chicken and vegetables) are served alongside plates of rice dressed with raisins and cashews (droma dresil). Another family friend, Khedup Pematso, explains how to make tsampa, a quintessential Tibetan dish of roasted barley flour kneaded with butter tea to form little doughy balls to be eaten with hands.

“Losar can last 15, 20 days or even one or two months in Tibet,” Loga says. “In Toronto, it’s usually just a day because everyone has to work. But still, it’s a very important holiday. It’s one of the only times a Tibetan restaurant closes.”

Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year

During the Korean New Year, home cooks fry savoury pancakes called jeon that are stuffed with vegetables, seafood and meat. Bottles of Soju, a clear spirit made from rice or barley, flow like water. Children give blessings to their elders and in return, receive money for good luck.

But for chef and culinary instructor Sang Kim, Korean New Year boils down to one essential dish when he’s cooking for his family: tteokguk, or Korean rice cake soup.

“Teokguk is so important to the New Year,” says Kim, who hosts sushi-making classes at his kitchen studio just north of The Junction. “It’s one of the first dishes a child eats and it is something you eat every year to symbolize getting a year older. It represents a profound transition in life.”

Kim learned how to make it from his grandmother while growing up in a rural part of Suwon, a city south of Seoul in the northwest part of South Korea. Every family will have their own version of tteokguk, with some making a soup base of boiled seaweed and anchovies and others replacing the rice cakes with dumplings.

Kim’s version starts by simmering oxtail, beef knuckles and knee caps mixed with garlic and a Korean soy sauce called guk-ganjang. After eight hours, he adds slices of chewy rice cakes made from pulverized rice. The soup is then topped with sliced brisket, green onions and julienne Korean-style omelette. Of course, no Korean meal is complete without plenty of kimchi, which Kim makes in big batches. He ferments the cabbage for up to three months before it’s ready to eat.

Being with loved ones is the most important part of the New Year celebrations, Kim says. No matter how busy or far a person lives, it’s a priority to make it home and have a bowl of tteokguk.

“Koreans celebrate both New Years: the Gregorian one and the Lunar one,” Kim says. “The western-style one is celebrated with friends but the traditional Lunar New Year is a three-day celebration where you go home and visit family.”

karonliu@thestar.ca

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The many sides — and dishes — of the Lunar New Year