Nachos Overload

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Every year, as the pages from my block calendar peel off, bringing me towards another Vietnamese New Year, my mind once again fills with nostalgia about an old Tet. Tet in my memory begins with my childhood in a small house nestled under a coconut grove on the outskirts of Bac Lieu in the Mekong Delta. Those were days of hardship, yet my parents worked hard so that Tet could bloom magnificently for all of us.

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Born into the Year of the Buffalo (1973), I grew up during a time when poverty was common among Vietnamese people. Those who survived the war struggled khổng lồ make ends meet. Everyone I knew didn’t have much lớn eat all year round, & children had to vì chưng all types of odd jobs lớn help put food on the table. Lượt thích all my friends, for the entire year I looked forward khổng lồ Tet because it was the only time when we could eat good food và receive a new mix of clothes, và even some lucky money.

A time to lớn shed old leaves & apply new paint

In my memory, Tet preparations started months before the lunar year’s end. In September, my father tended our pond to make sure that our fish would be ready for Tet. We planted chilies, onions, cabbages and leafy vegetables, which my mother và I would bring to lớn the market khổng lồ sell in order lớn buy the many necessities for our celebrations: pork, dried green peas, sticky rice, dried shrimp, fruit, firecrackers, và offerings for the ancestors’ altar. If we were lucky, there would be enough money left for my parents lớn buy each of us — their three children — a new set of clothing.

A few weeks before Tet came, my father studied the weather patterns, talked lớn his friends and decided on the day to lớn pluck the leaves of our apricot tree,mai.I watched in amazement as the barren tree started khổng lồ sprout countless green buds which grew fuller & fuller as Tet drew nearer. My father monitored the watering and fertilizing of his tree every day to ensure they bloomed at the exact right time. As was true of the peach flowers we used to have in the north, if our maiblossoms bloomed brilliantly during the first day of Tet, our family would be blessed for that entire new year.

Regardless of how poor we were, Tet was the time to look và feel good, so every year, about two weeks before it arrived, we scrubbed & painted our house. My brothers & I moved our wooden và bamboo furniture out lớn the front yard & gave it a good wash, splashing water at each other while we worked. We then crawled into our most tattered clothes and covered our walls with a trắng paint we mixed ourselves using limestone powder & water. We laughed & joked while we worked, feeling happy as the gleaming white spread under our hands.


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A family in Sa Dec in the Mekong Delta with rows of apricot trees that are stripped off old leaves. Photo by Andy Ip.

After the house was scrubbed và cleaned, I spent hours helping my mother prepare a special pickled dish using onions và scallions we bought at the market. They had lớn be fresh, still attached to their leaves & roots. More importantly, they had to lớn be bite-size. Bringing them home, we washed any dirt & mud away, then soaked them overnight in water diluted with ash I collected from our cooking stove (we cooked mostly with rice straw or tree branches during those days).The ashy water helped tame the onions and scallions so that the next morning they no longer made my eyes weep when I peeled off their outer layers to reveal their glistening whiteness. Sitting side-by-side with my mother in our front yard, I talked lớn her about our plans for the New Year, about the food we would cook, và whom my parents had chosen to lớn be the first person lớn step into our house on the first day of Tet.

Many hours of squatting on low stools lớn prepare our pickled dish always made our backs sore, but as we spread the peeled onions & scallions out on thin tin trays to lớn dry them in the sun, we felt happy to lớn watch the white alliums grin back at us. They looked lượt thích flowers that had sprung up from the earth, lượt thích the purest type of beauty. While waiting for them to lớn dry, I gathered small twigs lớn start a fire in our kitchen while my mother measured & mixed vinegar, sugar and salt into a pot.

Once it cooled, we poured the pickling liquid over our onions và scallions, which we had arranged artistically into glass jars. From time to time, I would help my mother carry these jars out to lớn the sun, to make sure that our pickled onions & scallions would "ripen" in time for Tet. They always made the perfect side dish, to be savored with dried shrimp, sticky rice cakes, & boiled or stewed meat; their fragrant sour-sweetness melting in our mouths.



The week before Tet was the busiest, but also the happiest. One of the most exciting events was lớn drain our pond to lớn harvest our fish. We had no motorized pump back then, only a bamboo bucket we connected to two strong ropes and took turns swinging to lớn get the water out of the pond. Our hands would grow tired & hours passed before we saw fish jumping up and down, trying to escape the increasingly shallow water. Our pond was not large, but large enough khổng lồ reveal different secrets each year. Besides the tilapia fish my father farmed, we also often found mullet, catfish and perch.

For quite a few years, I was not allowed to lớn go into the drained pond to lớn catch fish with my two elder brothers. Standing on the pond’s bank, I burned with jealousy as I watched my brothers jump around in the mud; their faces blackened, their teeth gleaming in the sunlight as they cheered and laughed. Each time a fish was captured they wouldscream with excitement, lift it high into the air while it wiggled madly, & then throw it on the floor.

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My job was lớn scoop the jumping fish into a bamboo basket and release it into a large tin bucket filled with water. Sensing that I was unhappy, my parents would tell me that catching fish with your bare hands was not a task for a small girl lượt thích me. Of course, they were right. My brothers’ hands were often injured. One year, a catfish pierced its sharp thorn into my brother’s finger. He ran into the house & when I found him half an hour later, he was under his bed, clutching his hand khổng lồ his chest, crying lượt thích a baby. I laughed at him so hard, but a few months later, I too was stung by a catfish’s thorn. The pain pierced into my bones, so hot, deep and searing, that I could not help but crawl under our bed and bawl like a newborn as well.

Candied coconut by any other name

Tet would not be fully ready without mứt dừa, a type of candied coconut ribbon. As someone with "monkey genes" who could climb well, I was tasked with the responsibility of picking several fresh coconuts from our trees. Our small garden was filled with fruit trees, và my favorite were the coconut trees that spread their protective arms over our house, singing us lullabies by rustling their green leaves against our tin roof. These coconut trees bore plenty of fruit all year round. I quickly got up khổng lồ the top of a tree, leaned my body toàn thân against the biggest leaf and selected the coconuts which gleamed with several golden stripes on their dark green skin. The flesh of these coconuts would be perfect: not too thin and not too crunchy. Hanging on to the tree with one hand, my other hand would swing a sharp knife to lớn chop the chosen coconuts from their stems. They made happy thumping noise as they kissed the ground.

Just lượt thích catching fish for Tet, preparing candied coconut ribbons was a joyous family event. My father và brothers chopped & then peeled away the thick outer layers of the coconuts. We then drilled holes through the hard shells, tilting the fragrant juice into a large bowl. Later, my mother would reward each of us with a glass of delicious coconut water. The rest we would be put aside lớn make thịt kho trứng— pork và eggs stewed in coconut juice — an essential Tet dish that"s common in the Mekong Delta.

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Braised pork và bittergourd soup are two popular Tet dishes. Illustration by KAA Illustration via Behance.

Making candied coconut ribbons was fun, but it was also a test of our skills & patience. After separating the trắng coconut flesh from its hard shell, we peeled the brown, inner-skin away, then shaved the coconut flesh into thin, long ribbons that we dipped into hot water. After draining them, we mixed them with white sugar. Our neighbors often added food coloring to make red, pink & even green coconut ribbons, but we preferred ours to lớn be white and natural.

After a few hours, when the sugar had completely dissolved into the ribbons, I would make a low fire in the kitchen for my mother khổng lồ cook the coconut ribbons in a large frying pan. Lớn help the sugar crystallize, she occasionally stirred the ribbons with a long pair of chopsticks, giving them an equal amount of heat while not breaking them. My job was lớn keep the fire very low, so as not lớn burn my favorite Tet dish. It was the most delicious job as I only needed to lớn put out my tongue khổng lồ taste the sweetness of Tet in the air. About an hour later, we would have a basket full of long, curly coconut ribbons, crystallized in their fragrance.

The craft behind bánh chưng

As the mai tree’s golden flowers started lớn bloom, a breeze would sweep across nearby rice fields and waft lớn my nose, whispering that Tet was about to lớn knock on our door. With this aroma in the air, we made traditional sticky rice cakes, or bánh chưng. Bánh chưng is a must-have for northern Vietnamese during Tet. My parents, who had uprooted themselves from the north & planted themselves into the soil of southern Vietnam during the late 1970s, embraced their northern heritage by making bánh chưng every year while our southern neighbors prepared bánh tét.

Both of these sticky rice cakes use the same ingredients, including sticky rice, dried green peas và pork. However, bánh chưng is wrapped with lá dong (phrynium leaves), which grow abundantly in the north, while bánh tét is wrapped with lá chuối (banana leaves) which you can find anywhere in the south. In addition, bánh chưng is square and thick, while bánh tét is long and round. Lastly, while bánh tét can have a “sweet” version (made with sweetened bananas), bánh chưng only has a savory version that includes pork & green peas.

The night before the important day of making our bánh chưng, I helped my mother soak dried green peas overnight lớn remove their skin. We also soaked sticky rice và separated good grains from the brown & yellowish ones. My brothers squatted in the yard as they helped my father split bamboo stalks into thin, flat strings. These strings would be used to lớn tie the leaves around our cakes. My mother explained that bánh chưng needed to lớn be boiled for hours, so plastic or nylon strings would not be healthy.

Once these tasks were complete, my father would ask me to help him cut down lá dong leaves from our garden. When we moved south, he searched all over fordong plants, which were hard lớn find và harder to grow in the tropical climate. With these plants growing in our garden, we felt we had brought with us a part of our ancestors’ village. We cut the precious leaves from their stems, piled them up gently, & brought them khổng lồ our yard to wash away any dirt và insects. We took care so that no leaf was torn. Softening them under the sun or over hot coal, we phối them aside.