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What's on the menu for Lunar New Year? Traditions, expectations

Smiling cat figurines are displayed on a table, covered in red silk
Linh Pham
Getty Images
Cat statues are displayed in Hanoi, Vietnam. Lunar New Year, which is based on the lunisolar calendar, falls on January 20 this year and marks the Year of the Cat in Vietnam or the Year of the Rabbit in China, Korea, and other East and Southeast Asian countries.

Sunday marked the beginning of Lunar New Year.

This year, one community's celebration came under attack when a gunman killed 10 people in a mostly Asian-American city just outside Los Angeles.

The shooting cast a shadow on what is one of the most important holidays for people of the Asian diaspora. Families gather around food to wish each other good fortune and pay respect to their elders.

Everyone celebrates a little differently, as families broaden and traditions evolve over generations. For Carina Tran, the chef and owner at Huế, a Vietnamese restaurant in Bay View, the meaning of the holiday is clear.

“It’s family, tradition, celebration,” said Tran, who grew up in Delavan, Wisconsin.

Extended conversation with Carina Tran and Mark Nielsen, the owners of Huế.

Tran’s mother is Buddhist, and prepares offerings to the ancestors over a three-day period at her home. The family has been in southeast Wisconsin since they came from Vietnam in 1975.

“We go there almost every day, to stop in to eat, see my siblings, so my son can see his cousins,” Tran said.

As someone who didn’t grow up with it, Mark Nielsen, Tran’s husband and business partner, has embraced the holiday.

“I’ve had it explained to me, it’s like Christmas, New Year’s, the Fourth of July, and the World Series — all rolled into one,” he said.

Tran and Nielsen said celebrating the new year, or Tết, can feel odd sometimes, like they’re straddling two worlds. It’s not a holiday that everyone gets off from work. But for many people who celebrate, business comes to a halt.

“Here in the U.S., we’re a Vietnamese restaurant, we deal with Asian distribution,” Tran said. “All of a sudden, you might need something and we head down to Chicago, where they might be closed for seven or 10 days, and we’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we forgot.’”

A Vietnamese woman with dark hair and a white man with glasses and a beard stand in a restaurant, next to each other smiling.
Lina Tran
Carina Tran and Mark Nielsen at their restaurant Huê''s new location on 2699 S. Kinnickinnic.

There’s one treat that many Vietnamese families celebrate the new year with: bánh chưng.

“My mom, she makes them from scratch,” Tran said. “She’s gotten her grandkids to come over and she teaches them how to make them. It’s kind of an art. It’s sticky rice and it can have pork belly on the inside with mung beans, then sweet rice, and then you wrap it in banana leaves and you steam it.”

Bánh chưng are hefty, like a brick. You can slice them up and fry them, or simply eat it warmed up, sprinkled with sugar on top.

Tran’s mother will set a table heavy with food and they invite ancestors to join them. Before her mother became a vegetarian, Tran remembers always having egg rolls, boiled chicken, beef skewers, and sweet rice.

“There’s also material offerings, like joss paper,” Nielsen added. “There’ll be joss paper in the form of currency, clothing, cars, watches.” The gifts are meant for loved ones in the next life — things to wish them a happy new year too.

The table is set in a particular way, with certain dishes placed in their designated places.

“There’s definitely a right way to do it,” Nielsen said. “We’ve been told on many occasions, ‘Set that there, no, set that over there on that side.’ Nothing about it is random.”

There’s always six seats at the offering table.

“The different compartmentalized areas I’m not familiar with, as far as when you do offerings to ancestors,” Tran said. “Just that you do it and it helps clear out the bad luck and it helps bring in the new luck and good fortune for the new year.”

For members of the first-generation like Tran, it can be tough knowing there’s a right way to do something — but not knowing exactly how to do it.

“The older generation kind of expects us to know, and there’s so many things being here that pull us in so many different ways,” Tran said. “There’s also [a] language barrier. I don’t speak fluent Vietnamese. I can understand Vietnamese, but they tend to not explain what it is about.”

A mixed family like hers and Nielsen’s adds another learning curve, though Nielsen said he’s leveraged his presumed ignorance to their advantage.

“I try to jump in and help sometimes,” he said. “If there’s anything in question, I’ll go in and make the mistake, and I’ll just get passed off because it’s like, ‘Well, you don’t know what you’re doing.’ And I go, ‘Nope, I don’t!’”

Tran and Nielsen said they want to carry on the traditions they’ve learned, especially for their son. It might take sitting down with her mother, and asking lots of questions, Tran said.

They figure their ways might end up looking a little different than Tran’s mother’s.

“Sometimes I envision my dad, aunt, and grandma coming in,” said Tran, thinking of her loved ones who have passed. “If they saw a piece of pizza there, I think they’d like it. I always envision my dad being like, ‘Oh hey, thanks for changing things up.’”

It might not be true to tradition, but it’s true to their family’s experience.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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