Though my own (Japanese and European) family does not celebrate the Lunar New Year (both sides celebrate the Gregorian New Year, on January 1st), I have become much more aware of the traditions and celebrations surrounding the Lunar New Year since I began dating Son (who is Vietnamese and Buddhist) almost four years ago. Though I haven’t quite managed to learn Vietnamese yet (believe me, I’m trying, but all those different inflections meaning different things confuse the heck out of me and drive Son crazy when he tries to teach me!), I still am able to understand a good amount of their ceremonies and traditions, despite the language barrier.
During the weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year, Southern California’s Little Saigon area (Santa Ana and Westminster) has several huge open air flower markets. They are set up in the parking lots of some of the shopping centers, and the parking lots that are still open and the surrounding streets become a madhouse. It’s impossible to find parking, because everyone comes to the flower markets to buy fresh flowers and other supplies for the New Year. The flower markets also sell other products for the New Year, and all the bakeries and grocery stores in the area have huge displays of baked goods, candied fruits, and other ‘New Year’ products (especially incense, and those little red envelopes). People set off firecrackers on the sidewalks, and there are hundreds (if not thousands) of people milling about and spilling out into the streets. (Son remarked that this was very similar to Vietnam – pedestrians and vehicles with little regard for traffic laws, except here there are more cars, and in Vietnam it’s mostly scooters and bikes.)
In Son’s family, the New Year is a week-long celebration, beginning the Sunday before the New Year and ending the next Saturday. Before the New Year, it is very important to clean the entire house and get rid of any mess or clutter, so you can begin anew for the coming year. (We actually did this in our apartment before both the Gregorian New Year (Jan 1) AND the Lunar New Year (Jan 26).) Vases of fresh flowers are set up all around the house for luck and decoration.
Many different foods are prepared for the New Year. I believe there is some sort of symbolism behind the foods that are prepared, but for Son’s family the reason for the foods are more because they are traditional – they make mostly the same foods every year. This year the foods included a thinly sliced boiled pork belly, grilled steak cubes, wontons, egg rolls, rice, a beef soup/curry, a tofu and mushroom dish, a thicker marinated pork belly with hard-boiled eggs, and a broccoli stir-fry. (I might be forgetting something, but there was so much food it was difficult to remember it all.)
Once the food is prepared, it is presented nicely on the table for the ancestors. Bowls of rice and chopsticks sit at each seat at the table, and the rest of the dishes are set out in the middle of the table. When everything is set up properly, we welcome the ancestors into the house. The front and back doors are opened, and left open for the duration of the feast. Small tables are set up outside the front and back doors with smaller portions of the same foods on it, as a sort of offering to the ancestors. In addition, food is set in front of several shrines throughout the house.
Each person in the family (myself included) light sticks of incense and pray for health, wealth, happiness, and good fortune for the coming year and for those near and dear to us. In Son’s parents’ house, first we pray in front of a shrine dedicated to all four of his deceased grandparents, then stand the incense in a short vase in front of the shrine so it can burn down. Then we light more incense, and do the same in front of the table where all the food is set out. I’m not exactly sure why this is done (the whole language barrier can be a bit of a problem) but my guess is that it is to bless the food and welcome in the ghosts of the ancestors.
And then… we eat! Since the food has been sitting out for a bit, it’s all reheated first. Then, much feasting and overeating. 😀 This year after dinner, we had some candied lotus seeds for dessert. This was my first time eating them, and they were surprisingly good (and a little addictive!)
After dinner we washed and refilled the tiny cups of water that sit in front of the shrine and in front of his mom’s Buddha statue, then set large plates filled with fruit in front of the shrine and on the tables outside the front and back doors.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, firecrackers are set off at the large temple in Little Saigon (we watched this on TV) and there’s much singing and celebration. Son tells me that there are 7000 people at the temple for the New Year.
Since the Lunar New Year was on a weekday, Son and I had our own little celebration with some grilled catfish, known as cá nướng da giòn in Vietnamese, made using a recipe similar to the way his dad makes it at home. It’s ever so addictive, especially wrapped up in spring rolls. It would have been even more amazing had we access to a whole, skin-on catfish… but Little Saigon is ever so far away these days. *sigh*
Note: I got this recipe from this Vietnamese forum and had Son translate it for me. There weren’t any measurements, so I’ve sort of made up my own, but it’s really all estimation, whatever looks good to you. So unless you can read Vietnamese… you’re just going to have to trust me on this one. 😉
- 1 whole catfish, skin on
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 4-inch piece of ginger, peeled
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 2-3 stalks green onions, chopped
- 1 tsp vegetable oil
- crushed peanuts
- fried onions
- Heat the oven to 350° F.
- Make thin cuts diagonally along the fish, almost to the bone.
- Lay the fish flat on a sheet of foil.
- Rub the fish with the salt, then the sesame oil. Rub the fish with the garlic and onion powders.
- Thinly julienne the ginger, then lay on top of and underneath the fish.
- Wrap the fish in the foil, and make a few small holes in the top of the foil to allow steam to escape while cooking.
- Depending on the size of the fish, cook for half an hour to an hour. Keep an eye on the fish to make sure it doesn’t overcook.
- When the fish is fully cooked, remove it from the oven and carefully open the foil, taking care not to burn yourself. Heat the broiler.
- Pour the liquid that has pooled in the bottom of the foil into a bowl, and set aside.
- Mix the honey and lemon juice, and brush the top of the catfish with it.
- Put the fish under the broiler, just until the skin turns golden brown.
- Mix the green onions and vegetable oil with the drippings, and microwave for 10-20 seconds. Pour over the fish.
- Sprinkle the crushed peanuts and fried onions over the fish, and enjoy!
- We ate the fish in spring rolls with lettuce and tomato, but you can enjoy the fish by itself as well.