On Saturday, Jan. 14, local community members gathered at the Little Saigon Creative to celebrate the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tết). The event was organized by Friends of Little Sài Gòn, an organization focused on centering Vietnamese culture and advocacy in the community. Mak Fai Kung Fu performed a lion dance and was followed up by a workshop where event attendees learned how to make bánh tét — a traditional Vietnamese Lunar New Year dish made with glutinous rice, mung beans, and pork wrapped in banana leaves. The workshop was led by instruction from Yenvy Pham, co-owner of Hello Em Cafe & Roastery and owner of Phở Bắc Restaurants; Trinh Nguyen, owner of Ba Sa Restaurant; and Theresa Cat Vu, founder and owner of Phở Bắc Restaurants.
From lion dances and traditional music to art performances and dance parties, there are plenty of opportunities to kick off the Year of the Rabbit, or the Year of the Cat in the Vietnamese calendar. This year, the Lunar New Year falls on Jan. 22, but celebrations take place from this weekend into next month. Celebrated in China, Korea, Vietnam, and other East and Southeast Asian countries, some traditions include cleaning and preparing before the holiday; wearing red and gifting money in red envelopes; eating lucky foods, like dumplings and niángāo (glutinous rice cake); honoring ancestors with offerings; and family feasts.
On Feb. 6, along 12th Avenue and Jackson Street in Little Saigon, ChuMinh Tofu Vegan Deli hosted a Lunar New Year meal for guests lined down the block. The special menu included rice, vegan BBQ pork, spicy tofu, stir-fried veggies, eggrolls, oranges, and $1,000 distributed to guests in red envelopes. Volunteers served the free food and passed out the envelopes along with warm clothes and supplies to their many guests — not customers per se, but people in need of a warm meal and who may struggle to afford one most days.
Like many Chinese Americans of the diaspora, I have never spoken the dialects of my family with any fluency. There were the words I knew only in Chinese to speak in public without anyone understanding, like “that’s cheap” in Cantonese, ho pang, or “too expensive” in Shanghainese, gesu. There were the words we used at home because they were intimate to us, like pet names, but there were never words that flowed into full sentences, conversations, articulate thoughts. Still, I always knew the language of food. And there is no time that is more important for food than the Lunar New Year. Long noodles are for a long life, whole fish is for abundance, egg dumplings are for money, mandarin oranges are like gold.
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Lunar New Year has begun, and we have officially entered the Year of the Ox (and made a much-needed exit from the Year of the Rat).
Lunar New Year is a significant holiday in many cultures across Asia — such as in China, Vietnam, South Korea, and Malaysia — and marks the first new moon of the lunar calendar. The celebration lasts up to 16 days with food, festivities, family, and fortune at the center of it all.
In-person festivities will be limited this year, but that won’t stop us from enjoying some food to ring in the new year. Here are three Intentionalist suggestions on where you should eat to celebrate the Year of the Ox:
I grew up making dumplings with my family — my mother preparing pork, shrimp, tofu, egg, and spinach, all seasoned by soy sauce and sugar, and enlisting my little brother and I to help wrap while my father was stationed by the stove as “the boiler,” watching to make sure the pot had boiled three times.
As a very anxious and socially awkward young person, I often felt like I didn’t belong anywhere — not in school and not in my family. Concentrating on pressing the dumpling skin together over the filling, I got to a humming place where my body and mind worked in concert with each other, each finger moving surely into the next motion.
As a young adult living far from biological family, the thing I missed the most was the family tradition of making food together. I experimented with creating my own traditions for birthdays and other holidays with makeshift kin. I started to host an annual dumpling-making party around my birthday, close to the Lunar New Year. A way to take stock of the community I had gathered or maintained over the past year. An invitation to build in the new year by inviting newer friends to make food with me.
I was born in 1991 on the first day of Lunar New Year in Nagoya, Japan to a Chinese mother and a white American father. My brother, my dad, and I moved to the States when I was 5 and my mom followed a couple years later. Throughout elementary school, we would go back to China to stay with my mom’s family every other summer. We’d spend the whole school break there, almost three months at a time, and come back just in time for school to start in the fall. One year in early elementary school, we landed on the first official day of school, so I started school a day late. The, at the time, 14-hour time difference meant that I was so sleepy that first day back that I fell asleep during class. I’m grateful that my teacher was understanding.
Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee-producing country, a fact largely unknown to most consumers, though that is changing for those who visit Hello Em Viet Coffee & Roastery. Hello Em is Seattle’s first Vietnamese coffee roastery. Co-owners Yenvy Pham and Nghia Bui carefully oversee every part of the process from sourcing and importing beans from Kon Tum and Buôn Ma Thuột to roasting in house on a Neuhaus Neotec air roaster. The roasted beans make up their signature coffees: the anh roast, a single origin robusta, and em roast, an arabica blend of coffees from Vietnam, Oaxaca, and Ethiopia.