Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for KITCHEN and CAKES

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      In their traditional farming life, the people of Vietnam constantly have to cope with cataclysms,  floods … not to mention wars … For that reason, upon preparing to enjoy a happy and carried through Tet time, the Vietnamese must know how to provide for everything… These concerns rarely attract the attention of researchers on Vietnamese studies as they are concealed in the ordinary life of the Vietnamese. In our present case, under the eyes of researcher H. Oger, everything must be exposed to light.

Concerns for CHICKEN and CAKES

     Before entering the house, we should stand for a while in front of the gate to have a look at the surrounding. It’s the same when we are preparing to welcome the Lunar New Year Festival. We should take it easy with great patience and we should know how to wait and enjoy the days prior to such a grand festival in a really solemn manner.

     First of all we should follow HENRI OGER to visit a rather well to do family. Our main purpose is not to see how the family make decorative arrangement in the house or what it has bought in preparation for the festival. Our intention is to look at the family’s poultry coop or pigsty (Fig.4)

     For the Vietnamese, even though Lunar New Year Festival is said to be observed for only three days, in fact its preparation is made for almost the whole year. Chicken and pigs are raised early so that they will grow and become mature by the time of the Lunar New Year Festival. Regarding those families which are able to make bánh chưng (square cake made of glutinous rice, green bean and pork, and wrapped with leaves of the maranta tree) they have to prepare glutinous rice, green bean… since early December. Even maranta leaves, bamboo tapes are to be prepared in advance, not waiting until some days before New Year Festival. How do they prepare these things? For those who have plots of land for gardening, they have to collect all year round fallen leaves and kept them above their stoves at the kitchen for wrapping giò (pork or beef paste)!

    With regard to making square cakes, those families which are used to wrapping the cakes with  boiled maranta leaves will, after the leaves are well boiled, tie them closely around the house pillars for handy use. For those families which prefer the cake wrapped with fresh leaves (unboiled leaves) so as to keep the uncovered cake green, they have to buy leaves right from mid December as the price of maranta leaves often fluctuates greatly during the last days of the year.

     Regarding the pot of “bánh chưng” (square glutinous rice cake) the type of cake that cannot be omitted in the 3 days of the Vietnamese traditional Tết.

     The “Bánh chưng” requires 2 main materials: sticky rice and pork. In the Northern countryside, among the few scarce “sào” (one tenth of a maãu or about 360 to 400 sq. meters) of ricefields used for planting rice, each family used to save a few morsels to plant glutinous rice (Fig. 5).

    But the glutinous rice chosen must be the yellow flowered sticky rice or the fragrant female one that has similar grains that would make a sticky rice done exactly to a turn. The pork used for the preparation of the cake has to be the one of the pigs fattened since the 7th or 8th lunar month. Some foresighted people even start to fatten their pigs since the fifth-month rice to have them weighed a hundred kilos at Tết.

    In the countryside in the North, there are families whose members are workers, peddlers, dealers… who have no one to take care of the ricefields, to fatten the pigs, so they have to gather 5 or 7 families together to form a kind of small association (the common term in Vietnamese is “đánh đụng” meaning slaughter and share) called the “Hội bánh chưng” (Association for sharing square glutinous cake), “Hội giò” (Association for sharing meat paste). The person in charge of that kind of small association would collect, accordingly to the requirements of each family, a great or a small sum of money to fatten the pigs, plant rice or buy rice. Thus, when Tết comes, that small association has enough rice and pork to make glutinous square cakes and meat pastes for its members .

    With regard to other supplementary materials such as green beans or marenta leaves, some other members can take care of them. This custom can be materialized at various times and places, but we can concretely describe it as follows: Every year, usually starting from the 20th of the 12th lunar month, the small associations for sharing glutinous square cakes and meat pastesbegin to ask one another to kill pigs, cut the pork, buy sticky rice (Fig.6), and distribute green beans and marenta leaves.

     With regard to the pig, after the distribution, the only thing that remains is the entrails, the association members would boil it then get together to have a booze. After that, the association’s mission is considered accomplished, one waits for the next year to gather together again. At that time, the number of members may increase or decrease and the person in charge may continue his function if he still has the other association member’s confidence. Such a collective activity expresses the solidarity “in emergency” of people living in wet rice areas.

     According to Phan Kế Bính in his work entitled Customs of Vietnam in the countryside, people often have tontine (*) for square glutinous rice cake, tontine for pork, tontine for beef, tontine for rice – commonly called tontine for enjoying Tết. The tontine’s banker collects each month a certain amount of money from the members then uses that money to make some profits, and when comes the end of the year, that whole amount would be used to buy an ox, a pig, and rice to make the cakes and distribute them among the tontine members to enjoy Tết. This form of tontine obliges each person to pay only little by little a very small amount of money, while it helps him to have no worries when Tết comes. Commonly speaking, at Tet time, each family used to prepare a pot of square glutinous rice cakes using 5 or 3 kilos or at most 10 kilos of rice, depending on the family’s financial situation, and a jar of pickled onions to be eaten with fat and square glutinous rice cake as mentioned by the sentence: “fat meat, pickled onions and red parallel sentence”. Besides, well-todo people can also have an additional pot of congealable fat meat or a pot of straw winded cooked fish kept warm in rice husk or both of them. Wealthier people can make pork-pie.

     Apart from the said delicacies, certain family also keeps ready a cockerel (a cock that has never threaded any hen) that will be killed when the family makes offerings at the transitional hour. Well to do families still have ready a capon, fattened since the 9th or 10th month of the lunar year, in view of a feast to treat their honoured guests at Tet.2

     Beside meat and cakes, one must also be concerned about small jars of pickled welsh onion already prepared since early December for use in the New Year Festival (Fig.7)

      They have also to tend and prune their gardens so that their trees would be laden with fruit and flowers by the festival time. To this end, they have to acquire the technique and skill of tissue culture, grafting, budding, leavespruning, bud-accelerating and blossomtiming. As regards narcissus whose scented golden flowers often blossom in early spring, they have to tend and prune the plant right from the beginning of the twelfth month.

     HENRI OGER has supplied us with a sketch of a gardener tending his orchid sprays (Fig.8) to make the plant blossom to his will.

     Besides flowers and ornamental dwarf plants (Fig.9), the people also enjoy white apricot, camellia, kumquat, red and white peach, bignonia… and fruit in general. All these things are prepared and tended before the festival.

    Speaking of fruits, mention should be made of the five fruit tray often seen in Vietnamese rural areas during the Lunar New Year Festival. For urban quarters, kumquat is preferable. The five fruit tray is placed on the ancestral altar while kumquat tree is arranged in the middle of the house. These things make the festival atmosphere ever more joyous and proper. Kumquat tree is often placed in an enamelled pot with swamp-eel skin colour made in Hongkong, Thổ Hào or Que Quao which are well-known producers of enamelled pots and jars. Kumquat trees are skilfully tended so that they may be laden with many big, golden and glossy fruits, their foliage are bright not dark green, and their stems grow strongly vertical with firm branches and round shade. Connoisseurs have a great liking for special kumquat of Vietnamese species.

    A side from these separate preparations, depending on locality and family, the Vietnamese also often did something together in preparation for the three days of the Lunar New Year Festival. It has become a traditional practice, for instance, the practice of joint efforts in making square cakes or meat paste. According to this practice, people have to make a monthly cash contribution to a fund, part of which is handed over to the fund keeper who is entrusted with using this accumulated sum of money to buy glutinous rice, green bean and pork for making square cakes that will be equally distributed to each share holder at the New Year Festival.

    Thanks to this practice, the share holders have not only taken advantage of a good sum of capital given to each of them in an orderly monthly arrangement but also felt easy when the festival’s coming because they are not busy and hasty to run after the purchase of necessary things for the traditional Lunar New Year Festival.

   The preparation for the Lunar New Year Festival (Tết) is not only a personal preoccupation of peasants who are busy all the year round with rice planting but also a common provident concern of trading circles and guilds. Annually, traders often send their orders on the purchase of necessary goods right at mid year so that they can put on sale all kinds of goods at the Tết market right from mid-December, especially folkpaintings and fire-crackers.

1 Associate Professor HUNG NGUYEN MANH, Doctor of Phylosophy in History.
2 A tontine is a fund to which a group of persons contribute The word tontine comes from Lorenzo Tonti, Neapolitan Banker who introduced the system into France in the 17th century.
3 According to LÊ TRUNG VŨ – Traditional Tết of the Vietnamese.

01 /2020

◊  Source: Vietnamese Lunar New Year – Major Festival – Asso. Prof. HUNG NGUYEN MANH, Doctor of Phylosophy in History.
◊  Bold text and sepia images has been set by Ban Tu Thu –

◊  From Sketches in early 20th century to traditional rituals and festival.
◊  Signification of the term “Tết”
◊  Lunar New Year Festival
◊  Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for MARKETING – Section 1
◊  Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for MARKETING – Section 2
◊  Vietnam Lunar New Year – vi-VersiGoo
◊  etc.

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