Ushering in Tết with Modern Vietnamese Classics (& a Side of Harmless Gambling)

What the Lunar New Year means to Yen Vo and Jimmy Ly of Madame Vo.

February  5, 2019
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The Lunar New Year falls on Feb. 5 this year. It's a momentous occasion celebrated by millions around the world, and we reached out to some of our friends to see how they'd be welcoming the year of the pig. Chef Jimmy Lee and Yen Vo, the husband-and-wife duo behind N.Y.C.'s popular Madame Vo and Madame Vo BBQ, share how they commemorate the Vietnamese Lunar New Year festivities known as Tết.

Chef/Owner Jimmy Ly

When people talk about the Chinese or Lunar New Year, they're referring to the new year celebrated on the lunar calendar, which typically falls at the beginning of February. It's celebrated in China, of course, but also in South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam (where it's known as Tết), which are countries that have been historically influenced by Chinese culture. Because China colonized Vietnam for many years, a lot of our new year traditions, and even dishes, have that cultural influence.

For example, the Chinese word for catfish is a homophone for "year surplus." Whole catfish is an essential Lunar New Year dish because it symbolizes abundance for the year ahead. Another important dish is long noodles, because the length of each strand represents longevity. You can also see the Vietnamese were inspired by Chinese egg rolls: In Vietnamese, they are called chả giò, and they correspond with the arrival of spring.

At Madame Vo BBQ, we'll be doing a Lunar New Year's dinner that nods to these Chinese traditions using Vietnamese flavors. We'll have short rib bone marrow spring rolls, duck leg confit hủ tiếu khô (duck confit rice noodle dish with garlic kho sauce, and topped with celery, scallions, cilantro, and garlic chips), and cá nướng (whole catfish grilled with honey butter, scallion oil, crushed peanuts, and crispy shallots). These dishes are a twist on what we would typically eat at home.

A Vietnamese home is full of traditions during Tết. Children and the younger generation often wish elders health, success, and happiness. In return, they receive red and gold envelopes filled with "good luck money" called li xi. And of course, everyone enjoys watching the traditional unicorn dance, the Vietnamese version of a Chinese lion dance.

Owner Yen Vo

I grew up in a Vietnamese enclave of Long Beach, Mississippi, and it's been almost 13 years since I've gone home for Tết, or Vietnamese New Year.

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Growing up, we spent the whole day before the new year cleaning and decorating the house with red lanterns for the guests. My mom would make roast pork and bánh tét, a traditional savory rice cake made with glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaf. I remember all of the kids would get red envelopes full of good luck (and cash) from the adults. After that, we'd all sit around and gamble! We used to play bầu cua cá cọp, a traditional Vietnamese game where you roll three dice and place bets on which animal character they land on.

In recent years, I've been celebrating with my husband Jimmy's family, and they do it a bit differently since they are Buddhist. They pray to and light incense for ancestors, which I didn't do growing up. His mom prepares vegetarian food, and on the night before Tết, we eat as a family. The next day is also spent together. Sometimes we'll go to Chinatown to greet his family friends and watch the lion dance.

My favorite part of the Lunar New Year is the traditional desserts: Jimmy's mom makes a pandan coconut cake that I love, and my mom still sends up bánh tét from Mississippi, a small taste of home.

How did you celebrate the Lunar New Year growing up? Share your stories with us below!

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Hana is a food writer/editor based in New York.