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Three New Ways to Celebrate Tết in the Bay Area

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A man and woman pose for a portrait wearing colorful ao dai.
Hết Sẩy Cali chefs Hieu (left) and DuyAn Le pose for a portrait wearing festive áo dài to ring in the Lunar New Year. (Hết Sẩy Cali)

D

eep clean your home, settle your debts, and get your haircut. Lunar New Year is just around the corner. In Vietnamese culture, the holiday is known as Tết, and this year it falls on Feb. 1. 

Here in the Bay Area, Tết provides no shortage of opportunities to participate in tradition and culture, but the holiday and its seasonal eats aren’t prescribed or stagnant. Diasporic Vietnamese communities have always been proficient at recreating nostalgic homeland flavors with local ingredients—incorporating, for instance, Mexican jalapeno as garnish for what we know as American-style phở. 

Now, nearly 50 years after the first wave of refugees arrived in the United States, Vietnamese Americans are still finding ways to augment the foods associated with Tết. In San Francisco, San Jose and beyond, young, 1.5- and second-generation Vietnamese chefs are using banana leaves instead of arrow leaves for rice cakes or lucky sticky rice dyed with red coloring in place of baby jackfruits. In doing so, pop-ups like Het Say Cali, Claws of Mantis and Bánh Chưng Collective pay homage to tradition while also helping to evolve Vietnamese American cuisine—and creating more inclusive, new communities along the way.

Hết Sẩy Cali

Hết Sẩy Cali, a colorful pop-up at the Rose Garden Farmers Market in San Jose, approaches Lunar New Year as just one part of its founders’ continued practice in honoring the craftsmanship of regional Vietnamese cuisine—always with plenty of verve and style. 

Every Saturday, you’ll find the booth decorated in vibrant Vietnamese opera paraphernalia. Owners DuyAn and Hieu Le, who dress just as colorfully, became engaged after only three days of knowing one another. Their Tết offering is a continuation of their decade-long love story—one that includes a passion for DuyAn’s Miền Tây heritage, the Northern California landscape of Hieu’s upbringing and the couple’s desire to carry on the culinary legacy of Eastside San Jose.

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For a brief while the couple traveled across the Bay Area, until they noticed an aging generation of Vietnamese cooks retiring in their old neighborhood. The slow but steady decline of legacy restaurants inspired the couple to hunker down in San Jose and focus on making their own contribution to the “ESSJ Vietnamese” food scene. 

Overhead view of banh tet, a kind of savory rice cake served on top of a banana leaf.
Hết Sẩy Cali’s main Tết offering this year is bánh tét thịt chiên, a kind of savory pan-fried rice cake. (Hết Sẩy Cali)

At their Saturday, Jan. 29 farmers market pop-up, the duo will celebrate Tết by passing out lucky red envelopes to children and encouraging customers to dress in áo dài and áo bà ba. This holiday, they’re serving bánh tét thịt chiên, a pan-fried version of the southern Vietnamese steamed glutinous rice cake that’s most commonly filled with pork belly and mung beans. Even as Hết Sẩy references these familiar flavors, Hieu clarifies that he’s “not romanticizing the past either,” unlike older-generation cooks who tend to prefer the 1970s Saigon-centric style of Vietnamese food. 

An oatmeal cooking on a plate, on top of a stack of books.
An oatmeal cookie with hoshigaki and creme fraiche is one of Hết Sẩy’s not-so-traditional Lunar New Year items. (Hết Sẩy Cali)

While the Les follow tradition—cooking glutinous rice for over 10 hours with banana leaves, coconut cream, black beans, mung bean puree and pork belly—they also incorporate a very Californian emphasis on artisan ingredients and processes. They source Koda farm glutinous rice for the cylindrical rice cake, and top the dish with pickled dried shrimp, muskmelons, Asian pear and housemade fermented shrimp-and-krill sa tế. On the weekend before the holiday, you’ll also be able to order a serving of thịt kho, Hết Sẩy’s homey version of the classic caramelized pork belly stew.

In addition to their entrees, a special selection of pantry items inspired by trips to Vietnam’s Miền Tây region are available for purchase. Bring home your own full-sized bánh tét or its vegan counterpart, bánh tét chuối sứ, which replaces the pork belly filling with a sweet Southeast Asian banana. To commemorate DuyAn’s hometown specialty, Hết Sẩy offers two types of Chinese sausage: Mekong lạp xưởng, which is air-dried using all-natural ingredients, and lạp xưởng hot vit, a version with salted duck egg. While their homemade tôm ớt sa tế—a funk-filled, umami-packed fermented chili oil made with wild shrimp brine—holds true to form, the real star is the vegan ớt sa tế chay, made with preserved lemons from a maker in DuyAn’s hometown. It brings a one-of-a-kind, pungent zest that can be served with rice and noodles, as a soup base or however you enjoy chili oils.

Busy that weekend and can’t make it to San Jose? Order a Lunar New Year meal kit for pick-up in the East Bay, Peninsula, SF and North Bay exclusive to the Pastel delivery service. The meal kit contains a flakey patê sô starter; thịt kho served atop bánh tét with pickles; and a fudgy style oatmeal cookie with hoshigaki, creme fraiche and other fixins.

Claws of Mantis

When asked to describe Claws of Mantis’ cooking style, chef Kevin Trang echoes the founders of Hết Sẩy Cali: “Eastside San Jose Vietnamese food.” The Michelin-experienced chefs behind the buzzy pop-up restaurant started out selling takeout dinner sets during the first summer of the pandemic, with a menu that interprets memories from Trang’s childhood in the Vietnamese enclave. The pop-up’s approach to Tết is similarly nostalgic.

For 2021’s Year of the Ox, which arrived just before vaccines were widely distributed in the U.S., the Claws crew wanted to provide a way for people to enjoy festivities at home in lieu of being able to host large gatherings. So, they created the “Tết Power Pack,” a 10-item takeaway New Year’s spread for four. Trang made sure to include all of the important symbolic dishes—banh tét for gratitude to the ancestors, thịt kho for wealth and prosperity, xôi gấc for fortune and joy, mì xào for long life and chives for everlasting eternity. 

“It was for Vietnamese people either missing their families for Tết,” Trang explains, “or people not necessarily knowing why we do the things we do.” 

The set also included bầu cua tôm cá, a gambling game popular during the holiday (putting our red envelope money to work!), and variations on the game’s rules. Trang realized that each member of his crew grew up with their own way of playing the game: “Everyone had different rules. Sharing different traditions. Making it our way.” 

This year’s Tết set ($125 for two people) is available for pickup on Sunday, Feb. 6. It features bánh tét, crab garlic noodles and half a fish sauce–glazed chicken

Bánh Chưng Collective

Whether you’ve stayed up late making pots of bánh chưng or this is the first time you’ve heard of it, Bánh Chưng Collective welcomes you to their 10th annual workshop on Saturday, Jan. 29 via Zoom. 

The workshops began as a way for Diep Tran, the community organizer-turned-restauranter and now R&D chef at Red Boat Fish Sauce, to create her own New Year’s traditions. After coming out to her family, she didn’t feel as welcome at Tết gatherings. 

“I really missed [making bánh chưng],” Tran explains, referring to bánh tét’s northern cousin, the only difference being the cakes’ square shape. “I couldn’t remember how to do it. So maybe, I thought, I could just make it for myself.” 

Fortunately, she was far from alone. Many of her queer friends had similar experiences with their families—they, too, were “people that also feel like they had to mute themselves when they go to these functions.” Tran’s informal bánh chưng parties helped them build a new sense of community. Together, they formed the Bánh Chưng Collective.

A spread of ingredients for making banh chung, a northern Vietnamese steamed rice cake.
The Bánh Chưng Collective’s virtual workshop will teach participants to prepare bánh chưng—a kind of savory rice cake popular in northern Vietnamese—in the comfort of their own home. (Bánh Chưng Collective)

After hosting a second private bánh chưng party in Los Angeles, where she’s based, Tran decided to open the third year’s edition to the public, attracting attendees across generations. When the pandemic forced the workshop online, Tran worried that the collective’s momentum would come to halt. Instead she found that the online format brought in more attendees than ever. This year, over 450 people, from the West Coast to the East, registered for the class. 

Tran notes that it’s not merely a queer-friendly space, but instead a queer-centered one. She reflects on her own ostracization as a queer woman, and the ways that this collective has allowed her to reclaim her heritage, which she would like to extend to both LGBT and diasporic youth: “If you’re young [and] you don’t have a connection to culture, you’re not making a good bánh chưng. Somehow you think you’re not ‘Vietnamese enough.’ I always start the class telling people to let go of those expectations. We’re not here to perform ‘enough.’” 

This year, Bay Area attendees who were lucky enough to order a bánh chưng kit before they sold out can pick them up from the San Francisco-based Vietnamese catering business Noodle Girl. Chef Hang Truong will include a Đà Lạt style papaya salad, the snack she spent all of her lucky money on as a child. Class begins with Tran demonstrating the overall process over Zoom, and then transitions to small breakout groups where attendees will learn more intimately with an instructor. Small groups will learn how to create banana leaf boxes, assemble the bánh chưng, and cook them on the stovetop or with a pressure cooker. 

Though the class features bánh chưng at its simplest, Tran encourages curiosity and creativity. In the last decade, the collective has experimented with sous vide bánh chưng, resulting in the “most béo (rich and fatty) bánh chưng ever” and even an Elvis bánh chưng, adding banana, bacon and maple syrup. She encourages students to make bánh chưng with butter, shallots, mushrooms, crab—whatever your heart desires: “We don’t care; we’re a bunch of queers!” 

At the end of the class, participants will have four delightful handmade cakes to eat and share with loved ones. Although kits are sold out, tickets are still available for the Zoom class for those who are willing to make a grocery store run for ingredients and supplies. A recording of the session will also be available for those who want to make bánh chưng at their leisure. 

At the heart of these three next-generation Tết offerings is a focus on education and community-building. The chefs behind pop-ups like Hết Sẩy Cali and Claws of Mantis scoff at the notion that “tradition” is rigid and uncompromising. Instead, they celebrate the new year on their own terms by educating customers who haven’t had a chance to learn about their heritage with empathetic welcomes, starting with what’s on the plate.

“They get to engage in culture on their terms,” Bánh Chưng Collective’s Tran says of the Vietnamese Americans who attend her workshops. “You don’t have to worry about what other generations have done. Culture belongs to you. It belongs to every generation.”

Update: This article has been updated to include details about Claws of Mantis’ Tết set—a late addition on the part of the pop-up.

Hết Sẩy Cali’s Jan. 29 Lunar New Year event will take place at the Rose Garden Farmers Market (577 Dana Ave., San Jose), or order the pop-up’s New Year’s take-home kit for 1/28 and 1/29 pick-up on Pastel.

Claws of Mantis’ take-home Tết kit is available for pickup on Sunday, Feb. 6 at Joint Venture Kitchen (167 11th St, San Francisco). Limited quantities are  for pre-order on Tock.

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The Bánh Chưng Collective’s virtual bánh chưng workshop will take place on Jan. 29, from 10 to 11:30am PT. The prepared kits are sold out, but tickets are still available via Eventbrite.

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