Old tradition to celebrate new year

For Haley Nguyen, the traditional Banh Chung cake brings back a lot of memories, including staying up all night preparing it.

Nguyen, the chef and owner of Xanh Bistro in Fountain Valley, grew up in a small village in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in 1975. When her village celebrated the Vietnamese new year, Tet, her family and others made enough Banh Chung for everyone.

The cake, an intricate mix of rice, pork and mashed mung beans, takes eight hours to boil, and those eight hours were an essential part of the Tet celebration. As the village elders gathered to tell ghost stories, fairy tales and family histories, Nguyen and others would stoke the fire under the oil drum that held the cakes and keep the water level high.

Nguyen, who has run Xanh Bistro for three years, works in a much more high-tech environment than she knew growing up. But when she hits the kitchen Friday to prepare for the following day's Tet festivities, she'll create Banh Chung the old-fashioned way, mashing the beans by hand and individually wrapping each cake in banana leaves.

"I've talked to some grandmothers who say, 'No, you have to do it this way. You cannot make it any other way,'" Nguyen said.

At 4 p.m. Saturday, the chef will offer a free cooking demonstration. In addition to handing out free samples, she'll tell the story of how the first Banh Chung was created more than 3,000 years ago.

According to legend, a Vietnamese king held a culinary competition among his sons to determine which one would succeed him on the throne. While most of the princes traveled far to seek exotic foods, the youngest son made his father a pair of simple rice cakes — one flat and square to symbolize the earth, the other round to represent heaven. The king considered that the wisest gift and proclaimed his youngest son the winner.

Banh Chung is so tied to the Tet holiday that it's a rare commodity the rest of the year, Nguyen said.

"I think the meaning of the rice cake is so special that people just wait until the new year to eat it," she said.

After Saturday's demonstration, Xanh Bistro will offer a small-bites Tet menu through Feb. 5. The small bites have a cultural significance, Nguyen said; in the village where she grew up, residents went door to door during Tet and sampled small bits of food at neighbors' houses.

Saturday, the restaurant will feature traditional Tet decorations, including flowers and a tree decorated with small red envelopes of money for children. The tables will also bear plates of fruit, not meant to be eaten, which represent an offering to ancestors.

Nguyen will honor her ancestors in a different way Saturday — she learned the recipe for Banh Chung from her grandmother and spent years perfecting the craft.

"You have to make at least five or six [cakes] before you get really good at it," she said.

If You Go

What: Tet celebration cooking demonstration

Where: Xanh Bistro, 16161 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Cost: Free, but reservations required

Information: (714) 531-2030 or http://www.xanhbistro.com

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