The last night before Tet, Nguyen Phuong Hai laid out three bowls of noodle soups, with bamboo shoot and pork meatball. On the same tray, he magically placed eight other plates of colorful pork, chicken and glutinous rice variations.
While a holiday feast is now often greasy and heavy, Hai’s version of a traditional Hanoi-style Tet dinner is none of those.
Born into what he describes as a strictly traditional family, Hai says the right Tet feast, at least according to his grandmother’s definition, must have “eight plates and eight bowls,” including seafood luxuries such as abalone, sea cucumber and swim bladder. The dinner table just needs to exude wealth and happiness.
Then comes thang cuon, a colorful creation conjured out of Tet left-overs to declare the end of sumptuous meat meals.
Hai, a respected expert on the capital’s traditional cuisine, told VnExpress International: “The home cooks of Hanoi had a talent for lifting normal ingredients into sophisticated delicacies.”
Five-element, yin-yang cooking
Five elements and yin-yang principles were vital to the cooking of Hai’s grandmother, Hoang Kim Thong and her contemporaries.
Grandma Thong, 93 when she passed away in 2014, used to dye pork meatballs with five different ingredients to make moc van am, a dish comprising all the colors of the five elements metal, wood, water, fire and earth.
Tet dishes like these are rarely seen today. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Phuong Hai.
Moc van am has almost disappeared from Hanoi homes because it demands too much time, a luxury of modern days.
So has thang cuon — the hot-and-cold outro to the week-long culinary symphony that abides strictly to yin-yang rules. The cuon part is a refreshing roll combining prawn, lettuce, pork belly and herbs. It is served as a cold appetizer to the hot bun thang noodle soup, which itself is a mixture of flavors: chicken, omelet, dried shrimp, pork floss, and a quarter of salted duck egg in a sweet broth.
Vu Bang, Vietnamese proto foodie and writer, described thang cuon as a Tet’s precious offering that was “unbearably delicious.”
Along with moc van am and thang cuon, countless of holiday dishes and desserts have been wiped out because of wars or simply time.
Nguyen Phuong Hai. Photo courtesy of Hai
Saving flavors from the past
“When fast-paced life gradually stopped Hanoians from spending days to cook and hours to eat, delicacies served within families cease to exist, unlike pho and bun cha, which thrive on the sidewalks,” Hai said.
This might change just now.
Pham Thi Hong Ha, owner of Gia Trinh Bakery at 16A Ly Nam De, said locals now buy her traditional cakes to have a taste of past holidays.
Ha spent months with her mother-in-law to master the art of yin-yang baking. “Old Hanoians used only herbs to add color to their cakes, like sabah snake grass, mugwort and jasmine,” Ha said.
Her bakery always reminds customers that “Great cakes come in pairs,” an old duality principle that is sometimes forgotten.
Meanwhile Hai is serving lost dishes at a restaurant not far from the Old Quarter.
“From my grandmother’s heritage, I have resurrected 100 out of 200 dishes. I’m planning to serve bun thang soon,” he proudly said.
Hai has also learned to cook with Ha’s mother-in-law.
“My mom is willing to teach young people who are passionate. But it takes years of dedication and requires a certain level of cooking,” Ha said.
Looking at her daughter, who is now doing a PhD, Ha said the cooking tradition cannot be forced upon the next generation.
“But when it’s time, I hope my daughter will continue to preserve the family’s passion.”
Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang