HAPPY NEW YEAR – “CHÚC MỪNG NĂM MỚI”
Vietnamese Sausage Recipe to follow
I had the unique opportunity to celebrate the “Vietnamese New Year” or as the Vietnamese call it, “Tết,” in a small village in Northern Vietnam with a family. “Tết,” celebrates the arrival of Spring, which is celebrated in January or February, depending on the Lunar Calendar. Everyone makes the pilgrimage (and I mean EVERYONE, transportation is fully booked months in advance) by motorbike, train, bus, taxi or car to their hometown to celebrate this very important holiday with their families.
Many customs are practiced during Tết, traditional food is prepared, ancestors are worshiped, lucky money is given to children in special red envelopes, new clothes are purchased, Kumquat Trees or Cherry Blossom Trees (or only their branches) are bought. Which are symbolic, much like a Christmas Tree for Christmas.
It is quite entertaining to watch them transport these very large potted trees on the back of their motorbikes and not just one tree but sometimes up to five. I often did a double take as a motorbike whizzed by me on the street with five Kumquat Trees attached and no sight of the driver.
Food is also an important element of Tết, families gather together to prepare and eat traditional food (much like our Thanksgiving). One Tết speciality is “Bánh Chưng.” Bánh Chưng is rice cake, which is made from glutinous rice, pork belly, mung beans and various other ingredients (ingredients used depends on the family making the rice cakes). Most families make the rice cake three to four days before Lunar New Year.
I was fortunate to be invited to learn how to make Bánh Chưng from a neighboring family in the village (see photos). When I arrived at the family’s house there were warm and inviting smiles all around. For some of these families in the village, I was the first foreigner they had ever met in person. I felt very honored to be invited into their home and have them teach me how to make this traditional cake.
Once the greetings were over, we began the Bánh Chưng lesson. I was given a square wooden mold, four folded “Lá Dong” leaves and instructions on how to insert them into the square mold. I had to layer and alternate the leaves all while making sure the entire surface was covered. It may be easy for them, ha.
Next, came the ingredients, first a layer of firmly packed cooked rice inside the Lá Dong leaves, mung beans, pork belly, garlic and then another layer of rice. That was easy, so I thought….next came the challenge. I had to tightly wrap the Lá Dong leaves over the ingredients, remove the mould and tie the Bánh Chưng with four pieces of Giang string.
This is where the struggle began, as it is important to tie the strings tightly around the Lá Dong leaves (this helps avoid spoilage in the future). Which apparently I had no skill in this department as the whole family had to assist me in doing this step. And by the time I had tied one of my strings, my “teachers” had completed making two full Bánh Chưngs. Hey, I was new at this and they had been doing this about their whole life. Eventually, after several attempts and lots of help, I had successfully completed my very own Bánh Chưng.
Once all the cakes were made they were steamed for about 10 hours, yep 10 hours. And FINALLY after all that hard work, it’s was time to devour one. But how do you eat Bánh Chưng once they have been cooked?
Well there is a technique in which you first take off the Giang strings, unwrap each layer of the Lá Dong leaves, exposing a green colored rice square (after cooking the Bánh Chưng the Lá Dong leaves impart a green color on the rice) and next you use the four Giang strings to divide and cut the Bánh Chưng into eight sections.
The next day brought even more new experiences. Traditionally a whole pig is bought, slaughtered and the entire pig parts are used to prepare dishes for the Tết holiday. And as promised a whole live pig arrived the next morning on the back of a motorbike.
At that moment, I decided I would watch the live slaughter of the pig. Up to that moment in my life, I had never witnessed the slaughter of any animal, except in videos. It was time. I took my position right in front, as many others stood on the sidelines. It was interesting to learn that some of the extended family had never witnessed a pig slaughter.
I won’t get into the specifics, but lets just say it was quick, pigs don’t have much blood given the size of their body and I now know I could kill a pig in the future after watching my first slaughter.
But the real magic happened after the slaughter. They broke down that pig like nobody’s business. MY GAWD! Pig parts where flying around, with intention. I didn’t know what section of the house to shoot photos, as every room contained various pieces of the pig, which were used to make a variety of traditional dishes. There are far to many too mention, but I will highlight a couple.
The first and most unusual dish was Tiết Canh, which is “Blood Soup.” They took the Pigs Blood, which was not cooked, mixed it with fish sauce, which prevents it from premature coagulation and then added boiled pig innards. Once the innards were added it is put in the fridge for about an hour.
And how does it taste? Well the texture is similar to soft jello and chewy from the boiled innards. Some of the bites contained cartilage, which were way too much work to chew. Overall the soup had more texture than flavor.
The next dish was “Gio Lua” or “Chả Lụa,” (see recipe below) which is Vietnamese Pork Sausage. The majority of the pig meat was used to make this dish. They cut the meat into chunks, put it into a metal “food processor” (see photo above) and added a few simple ingredients.
Once the pig meat had been processed into a paste it was then poured into a cylinder tin, which is lined with banana leaves. Once all the cylinder tins were filled and securely fastened they were then cooked. Once cooked they cut the “Gio Lua” or “Chả Lụa”into pieces and served them as a side dish. I also had a version of this made from horse meat the day before.
On my final day in the village, New Years Eve morning, I awoke to the sound of the community radio on the loudspeaker. Many villages around Vietnam still have community radio, which originated around the 1950’s and was intended to allow the people who couldn’t afford radios to have access to news.
However, on New Years Eve morning, Lunar New Year songs played in the early morning hours. And sadly, this was my final day in the village. But not without being presented with a “lucky” two-dollar bill (USD) from the father of the family I stayed with. Which is intended to bring me luck for 2016.
Generally, they don’t give out USD, but given I am from the US he gave me a two-dollar bill as “Lucky Money.” Thanks so much to the family for providing such an unforgettable experience, one I will never forget.
And now I give you a recipe for Vietnamese Pork Sausage – “Gio Lua” or “Chả Lụa.” This is one of the many traditional dishes during my visit. It is very simple and can be enjoyed with rice, stir-fry, noodle soups and sandwiches. The choices are endless. I hope you enjoy the recipe.
- 1 lb pork shoulder, cut into cubes
- 2 tablespoon of fish sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 clove garlic, chopped
- ½ cup water
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- 2 teaspoons pepper
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoons oil
- Put pork into freeze for 2 hours.
- Put pork into food processor and grind until pork has a smooth, paste consistency (see photo above), about 10 minutes.
- In a bowl add the pork, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and mix.
- In a separate bowl combine water, pepper, salt, baking powder and mix. Fold into the pork mixture.
- Cover and allow to rest at least 3 hours or over night in the fridge.
- With a spatula spread the pork on the narrow end of the banana leaf or on plastic wrap and roll it up tightly.
- Steam for about 25 minutes.
- Slice the Gio Lua/Chả Lụa into desired size and pan fry with oil until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
2. The texture should be very smooth (see photo).
3. You can either wrap it in a banana leaf or in plastic wrap. Banana leaves can be purchased in the freezer section of most Asian Supermarkets.