Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
Growing up in the Bay Area, I knew about Chinese New Year, but besides red envelopes filled with money and firecrackers going off, I couldn’t articulate much beyond that. It wasn’t until I moved to Orange County 20-something years ago that I truly began to appreciate the significance of it.
Locally referred to as Tet or Lunar New Year, the holiday is appreciated by not only Chinese residents but Vietnamese, Korean, Taiwanese and other backgrounds.
To get a better understanding of this celebration, I reached out to individuals and businesses in the community (with help from Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare a.k.a. @occomestibles) to share some of their Lunar New Year memories growing up. We also discussed many of the foods associated with Tet. During the course of my research, I quickly realized that many of the dishes these individuals identified with Lunar New Year were not necessarily enjoyed in restaurants, but usually prepared by the best chefs of all – their moms.
- Dzung Lewis is the host of Honeysuckle, a food and lifestyle YouTube channel. As the author of “The Honeysuckle Cookbook,” Lewis teaches some of her favorite childhood Vietnamese dishes like Ca Kho To, bánh bột chiên, and bánh mì. She also enjoys sharing stories and experiences with food on Instagram @honeysuckle.
- Philip Luu is a managing partner of THH (Tan Hoang Huang) Sandwiches & Coffee. Specializing in bánh mì and banh cuon, THH locations include Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Tustin and Westminster. The newest location is in the heart of Little Saigon off Bolsa Avenue.
- James Tea is a managing partner of Capital Seafood Group. Capital Seafood is located in Irvine Spectrum and Capital Noodle Bar has branches in Brea, Costa Mesa and Irvine.
- Kimberly Nguyen is the manager of Ngu Binh Restaurant, a restaurant specializing in Hue cuisine from central Vietnam; it is best known for bun bo hue, a rice noodle soup dish possessing complex flavors. Originally in Westminster, a second dining room opened in Fountain Valley off Brookhurst Street. (Note: The front door faces Edinger Avenue.) Nguyen’s mother is Ngu Binh chef Mai Tran.
Tet Traditions Growing Up
Growing up, Dzung Lewis’s family celebrated Tet in a very traditional way. “There’s a belief that the first person to greet the home would bring in good luck, so being superstitious, my dad would always leave the house early in the morning before relatives came over, and came back with red envelopes, flowers and lottery tickets,” Lewis said. She explained that the idea was to bring in good fortune for the year.
Vietnamese vs. Chinese Zodiac
In Vietnamese culture, 2023 is the Year of the Cat, while in Chinese culture it’s the Year of the Rabbit. This is one of two differences between the two zodiac calendars; the second being Year of the Ox being replaced by a water buffalo in the Vietnamese zodiac. One common explanation for the cat/rabbit difference is that the Vietnamese words for both are very similar – “mèo” for cat versus “mẹo” for rabbit.
As a child, young Philip Luu took advantage of the one time of the year when kids were allowed to gamble. “We would play a game called Bau Cua Ca Cop; literally translated it means Squash, Crab, Fish, Tiger,” Luu said. Betting involved placing one’s money on the picture of what you would think the dice would land on.
James Tea’s memories involved his family getting everyone together to host a big Lunar New Year party. “Including all the aunts and uncles and cousins, it would be between 30-40 people,” Tea recalled. In addition to dining on traditional Chinese New Year dishes, the kids would receive red envelopes from the aunts and uncles before lighting up firecrackers in the streets to celebrate the new year.
“Growing up, we’ve always spent the first day of Lunar New Year with family,” Kimberly Nguyen said. The gathering would be at her parent’s home for a traditional brunch. “Li xi” envelopes would be given to youth “along with exchanges of well wishes for the year,” she said.
Feasting on Lunar New Year Favorites
“After we received our red envelopes, my parents would fry up some Bánh tét (glutinous rice cakes stuffed with mung beans and pork belly) and serve them for breakfast,” Lewis said. She noted that the Bánh tét is a traditional Vietnamese dish that she only ate during the holiday. “It’s usually served with pickled vegetables in a fish sauce brine, slightly different from the ones you get in a bánh mì,” she said. Lewis always loved picking out the daikon because they soaked in all the flavor and had a nice delicate crunch.
“Besides the Bánh tét that I mentioned above, there was always a spread for dinner prepared that followed a ceremony welcoming ancestors home for the holiday. In Vietnamese, it’s called ‘cung’,” Lewis said. Her family would cook dishes for the altar like braised pork with eggs, roasted pork with crispy skin, pickled bean sprouts with carrots and chives, a chicken dish (because it was her grandpa’s favorite) and rice.
Luu’s family would get together every New Year’s Eve for a feast. “My family is full of good cooks, so we would all normally make a dish and potluck. The usual items would be there like fried rice and fried chicken, but of course for Tet we would have Bánh chưng and Bánh tét,” Luu said. Since the Bánh tét is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, it can be eaten as is. However, his preferred way of serving it is by lightly pan frying thick slices to enhance the flavor of the pork belly.
Specifically for the Lunar New Year, Nguyen’s family would have a traditional Vietnamese setting for brunch. This would consist of Bánh tét. “To complement the sticky rice cake we would pair it with Dưa món, which are Vietnamese brined vegetables – usually green papaya, carrots and leeks,” she said. It was a perfect pairing of savory rice cake and pickled, crunchy vegetables.
Celebrating Tet and Other Occasions Outside of Home
One of Lewis’s favorite places to dine at is Brodard. “While it’s not traditional to have grilled pork rolls during Lunar New Year, we’ve made it a tradition to celebrate any occasion here when friends or family visit. I love to order their banh khot and mini bánh xèo,” she said.
While she’s still discovering the area (She moved here a year ago from LA), Lewis recently found a place called Hong Loan that specializes in frozen, uncooked egg rolls to be fried at home. “This is another popular dish during our Tet celebration and I highly recommend their egg rolls; they taste just like the ones my mom made growing up,” she said.
When asked about places where one can purchase Bánh chưng, Luu explained that besides THH, not many places actually sell it. “Specialized bakeries might sell them, but normal ‘sit down’ restaurants rarely have it on the menu; churches sometimes sell them to raise money,” he said.
Celebrations are often held at Capital Seafood because of its family-style menu (as opposed to Capital Noodle Bar’s individually plated meals). “A typical order for family get-togethers includes lobster, steamed whole fish, Peking duck, a few fresh greens, maybe a soup and noodles for long life,” Tea said.
Sprinkles x Gold House Lunar New Year Collaboration
Among most East Asians, 2023 will be celebrated as the Year of the Rabbit. To commemorate this, Sprinkles bakeries have crafted a treat in conjunction with Asian Pacific Islander collective Gold House featuring almonds, a symbol of good luck in Chinese culture. The Gold Bunny Almond Red Velvet Cupcake incorporates slivered almonds into its signature red velvet mix before being baked on an almond cookie crust. Almond cream cheese frosting and a little Gold House flair finish it off.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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