Celebrating the Lunar New Year, Vietnamese and Chinese style

Pails of coral-colored quince blossoms on tangled branches spill from stalls and sidewalks wherever people celebrate the Lunar New Year. A symbol of prosperity and splendor these lovely flowers, among many others are found in every home to welcome this most important holiday of the lunar calendar year.

Arriving close to springtime the Lunar New Year brings hope for a fresh start symbolized by the pristine blossoms. Always falling on the first new moon after the 20th of January, Lunar New Year is also known as Chinese New Year. This celebration is called Tet Nguyen Dan in Vietnam or simply Tet. It is a time of renewal, a time to celebrate the coming of planting season, hopes for good crops and a promising future.

Preparations begin one month before the New Year arrives. This year the date is Feb. 18, which ushers in the year of the boar or year of the pig on the Chinese astrological calendar. Much effort goes into this momentous holiday for Vietnamese and Chinese people. Houses and shops are swept clean, windows and blinds are washed; thus bad spirits from the outgoing year are swept and washed away.

This is a time for new clothes, new shoes and gift giving. Out with the old and in with the new is a familiar phrase which works well in this context.

Long-simmering arguments or misunderstandings are patched up and outstanding debts are settled. Most importantly, families prepare the ancestral altar prominent in each home. Everyone welcomes the arrival of the spirits of departed relatives to visit once again. The belief is that these benevolent spirits protect those still living and thus these visits are critical for the coming year.

Being thankful

Vietnamese and Chinese families venerate ancestors and show thankfulness for the bounty of the earth. Thus foods of all kinds are also a big part of the celebration. Home altars are decorated with the same holiday foods the family will eat. These include citrus fruits, in particular tangerines, believed to bring luck as well as oranges, thought to bring riches. The Vietnamese rice cake, called banh chung, figures prominently among the cookies, fresh fruit, soups, plates of meat and vegetables and cups of wine. Favorite treats of those deceased family members might also be placed at the altar: cigarettes, chocolates or a cup of coffee.

Prominently placed in everyone's kitchen is a colorful picture of the kitchen god. His kindly gaze watches over the family activities that so often take place there. On the 23 day of the 12th lunar month, a few days before Lunar New Year's Eve, food is set out for the kitchen god's annual trip to heaven. Here he'll report on how each member of the family has behaved during the past year.

His mouth is smeared with honey or molasses prior to the trip. Some say this ensures he'll say only sweet things about the family. Others believe that, with his mouth thus sealed, he won't be able to say anything.

Family time

Come Lunar New Year's Eve the family gathers again near the stove or chimney and a new kitchen god picture is placed once again in hopes of a happy and safe year to come. Fireworks are lighted at midnight and the ancestor spirits are invited into each home to join in feasting and celebrating. Elders give children red envelopes stuffed with "lucky money." Folks who live or work far from the ancestral home will have made every effort to join their kin on this special night for the first meal of the New Year.

Visiting relatives, elders and even teachers is part of the festivities in the days to follow. Families may make pilgrimages to ancestral homes, shrines or villages of their parents. At home, tables have been heaped with more than enough food to last for a while, thus ensuring abundance in the New Year.

Proscriptions against sweeping and washing floors are in force on the first day of the New Year lest good spirits and good luck be swept or washed away. No one uses scissors or knives, lest good luck be "cut off" or "broken."

The Vietnamese believe that the first day of the New Year is "everyone's birthday." The Chinese say that the days following New Year's Day are the birthdays of the astrological animals. Vegetarian dishes are served and no animals are slaughtered on the first day of the year to give thanks to the animals killed for food during the past year.

So Xao Tran Lien Hoan's Caramelized Clams with Sautéed Vegetables

16 dried shiitake mushrooms

6 pounds littleneck clams, shucked (1 to 2 cups)

1 tablespoons sugar

2-3 tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam)

1 tablespoon white vinegar

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced thinly

2 large carrots, peeled, sliced paper-thin

Salt and white pepper to taste

3 sprigs fresh cilantro

Place shiitakes in a medium bowl, cover with hot water and weight with a saucer or plate. Allow to soften for 1 hour; drain, remove and discard stems. Set aside.

Rinse clams in cold water and dry completely on paper towels. Using a medium bowl mix sugar, nuoc mam and vinegar; stir in clams and mix gently. Allow to marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Heat 1-tablespoon oil on high heat and add onions; stir-fry for 1 minute. Add drained shiitake caps, stir and cook for 2 minutes; add carrots and cook for 2 additional minutes. Season mixture with salt and pepper; transfer to a large plate.

Drain clams; discard marinade. Wipe out wok; add rest of oil and heat to high. Add clams and stir-fry until they caramelize and become firm (5-7 minutes). Pour vegetables back into wok, mix gently and cook for 1 minute. Transfer to a platter, garnish with cilantro. Makes 4-8 servings.

Beacon Hill writer Georgia Lord Watanabe may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.[[In-content Ad]]