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Credit: Nhung Lê
personal essay

The Deep Longing of Tết and the Homecoming of the Vietnamese Community

published Jan 26, 2022
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We’re in a sea of crimson. From the silk áo dàis threaded with gold, to paper envelopes that flicker from one person’s hand into another’s pocket, we swim in vibrance. And though everyone is in their best clothing, we’re loud, we’re jovial. There’s no formality today — only a sense of ballooning joy, the moment before a deep exhale. It’s Tết, Vietnamese New Year, and we’ve found our way to each other. To comfort, community, and the things that tie it all together: storytelling and food. 

“Tell us again,” someone commands. And then, another person regales the group with a story. Some talk about their first days in America. Others talk about the War, always a grim specter in our imaginations. Uncles recall their teenage exploits with gleeful hand gestures, their impersonations so piercingly accurate that we’re on the floor, rocking with laughter. 

It’s late winter in 1993, and the last dredges of a cold front scrape down the Florida coast. Wind ruffles the spiky leaves of palmettos and the ocean waves curl onto the shore, briefly dampening the sand before they retreat. My family is three years into our new home — America — and the world looks marginally more familiar than it once did. We’re celebrating this year, in a big way. At my grandparents’ house, we gather our friends and family, most of them Vietnamese. Kids spill into the tiny wire-fenced backyard, catching lizards in my grandfather’s garden. In the kitchen, our guests tear plastic wrap from platters of xôi mặn (sticky rice studded with jewel-toned sausage and ribbons of egg) and bánh Tết (rice cakes wrapped in banana leaf). Aunties sneak peeks at each other’s dishes, wondering whose will be devoured first. (It’s always my grandmother’s legendary xôi.) 

As usual, I’m hiding under the long card table, next to the box of mứt, a traditional selection of candied fruits set out for guests. I’m 8 years old, with a huge gap in my teeth and spidery limbs that never arrange themselves quite right. I reach up for a tangle of dried coconut and, my favorite, bubbles of candied lotus seeds. All that sugar makes my teeth hurt, but I can’t stop eating. That is, after all, what Tết is for. 

In Vietnamese, rather than saying you’re about to “celebrate Tết,” you would say “ăn Tết,” which translates to “eating Tết.” It’s no surprise that such a phrase exists within a culture that honors food so fully, creating moments of celebration even within the everyday meals. But Tết food is special. It’s the food of glee, each laden with meaning. From pickled onions that cut through the richness of rice dishes, all the way to thịt kho (caramelized, slow-braised pork and eggs), each food is a part of the spiraling history we contribute to. So when we talk about eating the new year — consuming prosperity and hope — we’re talking about a kind of longing. A need to find our way back to a homeland, which for some has felt so achingly distant this past year of the pandemic.

For an immigrant, home is more than a dream. It’s a hunger so deep that a mere whiff of your mother’s signature dish can cut through all the other identities you offer the world, sending you back to a moment of pure vulnerability. Like how it feels to hide under a card table as a gap-toothed kid in itchy clothes. This past year, home has felt complicated for some. When I open my browser and read another gutting instance of AAPI hate, I want to gather my family up and spirit us across the ocean, to safety, or the impression of it. But America is our home, as much as the Vietnam of the past. So we stay; we cling to each other. To exist this way — with a foot on either side of the great divide — is to feel perpetually transient. To hunger in the most private parts of your soul.

In this special issue of Kitchn, we’re celebrating Tết with three incredible writers who embody a deep connection to their Vietnamese heritage through the food they share and stories they tell. Award-winning novelist and Guggenheim Fellow Andrew X. Pham writes about his mother’s recipe for chả giò, fried spring rolls, first printed in a 1970s cookbook for the First Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. Cookbook author, chef, and longtime advocate for workers’ rights in the restaurant industry Diep Tran contributes her recipe for sweet and tart candied citrus, a celebratory snack for Tết. Writer and MFA candidate Martha Pham shares a version of her family’s xôi gấc, a deceptively simple red sticky rice that invites meditation and quiet joy. We hope you enjoy the fullness of each story and recipe, and that you find a way to your own community during this special holiday.  

This coming new year, the year of the brave Tiger, I’ll be longing for a Tết with my family, our travels having been thwarted by the pandemic yet again. But I trust that one day, it’ll happen. My husband and I will take our daughter, who categorically loves celebrations of any sort, for a long weekend on the Florida coast, where I’ll wrap my arms around my grandparents. My daughter’s hands will be stuffed with red envelopes. I’ll glut myself on the foods I’ve been craving for far too long. But for now, this Tết, I’ll take a breath and hold it, imagining that I’m on my way home again. 

Three Special Recipes for Tết

1 / 3
Candied Meyer Lemon with Chili and Licorice (Mứt)
This recipe infuses the low-acid mellowness of Meyer lemons with the kick of hot chilies and camphor licorice.
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2 / 3
Xôi Gấc (Red Sticky Rice)
This red sticky rice can be eaten on its own with toppings, or paired with savory dishes.
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3 / 3
Chả Giò (Fried Spring Rolls)
Andrew X. Pham's chả giò (fried spring roll) recipe is one his family goes back to time and again.
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