Why beef is excluded in Tet altar offerings

By Ngoc Diep   February 13, 2021 | 12:29 am PT
In honor of the wet rice civilization, traditional offering trays for Lunar New Year include chicken and pork, but not a single dish of beef.

Historian Han Nguyen Nguyen Nha, former director of the Vietnam Gastronomy Research Institute, said the absence of beef stems from both historical and geographical reasons.

As a nation cultivating wet rice, buffaloes and oxen are an essential force of labor in farming, and were banned as a food source from the Ly-Tran dynasties (1009-1400) to the Nguyen Dynasty period (1802-1945), according to Nha.

He quoted from a book on regulations and ceremony norms under the Nguyen Dynasty, written by Tran Viet Ngac, how beef dishes were also missing from feasts and banquets for the kings and ambassadors to the country.

A traditional Northern Tet offering tray.

A traditional Tet offering tray in northern Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Phuong Hai.

Prior to Tet, households and local communities in rural areas traditionally slaughter pigs in preparation for holiday feasts. This is why the majority of dishes found on a traditional holiday platter is pork-based.

According to Dr. Nguyen Nha, beef dishes first appeared in the French colonial times, mainly in the French army. Later on, beef steak and steak frites with Bordelaise sauce gained popularity in Hanoi and were gradually altered to fit the local palate.

Since Tet traditions have been long established, every generation still sufficiently plates their offering tray with a boiled chicken, pork sausage, savory sticky rice cakes (banh chung), and bamboo sprout soup. Later on, some households added beef sausage, or a variation of pig sausage, to their spread.

Nowadays, grocery shopping is much more effortless, and as a result many households amplify their Tet spread with pickled beef shank or beef jerky. Nevertheless, these dishes never actually make it to the ancestral altar.

Chef Nguyen Phuong Hai, a sixth-generation Hanoi local, said modern lifestyles and habits have changed the perspective of many households regarding altar food offerings during Tet.

"Some young families even incorporate international foods into their spread. These imported foreign goods make fine offerings, as long as the younger generations are expressing their respect and gratitude towards their ancestors," Hai said.

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