Square sticky rice cakes (banh chung) and frozen meat are popular in the north, spring rolls in the center and braised pork and bitter melon soup in the south.
In his 2010 book “Discovering Traditional Vietnamese Cuisine”, Professor Ngo Duc Thinh, former director of the Vietnam Institute of Cultural Studies, wrote: “Because Tet dishes are used as offerings to ancestors, they are meticulously prepared to ensure food safety.”
Each region has its own specialties that reflect local culture, he wrote. Hanoians, for instance, use chilli powder to reduce the strong smell and neutralize ‘cold’ energy generated by fish and shrimp.
Hue locals use a wide range of peppers when cooking, with green chillies adding taste to dishes and red chillies decoration.
Southerners usually mix chillies with sweet foods, consume alcohol and eat sugarcane with salt and pepper.
Because of the different use of spices and herbs, Tet cuisine is unique to the three main regions of Vietnam.
Northern Tet Dishes
In Thinh’s view, Hanoi retains the largest number of traditional Tet dishes in the north. Traditionally, a northern Tet meal consists of four bowls and four plates (not including sticky rice, dipping sauce, and pickled onions), which represent four pillars, four seasons and four directions.
Traditional northern food during Lunar New Year. Photo by Shutterstock/Vietnam Stock Images.
A bigger meal would have six bowls and plates each or eight bowls and plates, signifying wealth and prosperity.
Northerners still follow this tradition, the four bowls usually comprising vegetable soup with pork skin, pork rib soup with bamboo shoots, mushroom meatball soup, and glass noodles while plates feature boiled chicken, fried spring rolls, square sticky rice cake, and Vietnamese sausage.
Some families add modern dishes like fried chicken and other western food, though traditional dishes are irreplaceable.
Plates are usually served before bowls, with main courses followed by eye-catching desserts like caramelized lotus seeds, kumquat preserve and caramelized ginger.
In the north, dishes are typically served hot and eaten with spices like pepper, chillies and ginger due to the cold Tet weather.
Central Tet Dishes
Tet cuisine across central regions has a lot in common with its northern neighbor, including banh chung and pork rib soup with bamboo shoots. Lemongrass skewers and pickled vegetables are other Tet favorites.
Central Vietnam experience extreme weather conditions, its people considered industrious and frugal. The combination of geography and climate has shaped local lifestyles and customs, with food no exception.
People in central Vietnam celebrate Tet with round glutinous rice cake (banh tet). Photo by Shutterstock/Nguyen Phu Sy.
Compared to both north and south, cuisine here is less sophisticated. Locals celebrate this special time of the year with boiled chicken, boiled pork, round glutinous rice cake (banh tet), and a stir-fried dish. Fresh spring rolls are also a must-have during Lunar New Year.
Steamed rice and hot and sour soup served with meat soaked in fish sauce, fermented shrimp sauce, braised pork, and fried chicken are popular treats.
Southern Tet Dishes
Warm weather and fertile soil in the south enable all kinds of fruits and vegetables to flourish, giving rise to richly flavored main courses and desserts.
Southern families eat bitter melon soup during the first Lunar New Year meal to usher in a new year of peace and happiness. Photo by Shutterstock/bonchan.
Tet cake represents the soul of the festival for southerners. Unlike banh chung, which is square-shaped, banh tet is cylindrical and filled with various ingredients like green and black beans, banana, coconut, and salted egg.
Southern families eat bitter melon soup during the first Lunar New Year meal to usher in a new year of peace and happiness.
Another southern must-have is braised pork with boiled or salted eggs, usually eaten with coconut rice.
Southerners have a wide choice of dishes during the most festive time of year: lotus root salad, crispy pickled pig ears, dried shrimp, pickled onions, Vietnamese pork sausage, and spring rolls.
Due to the hot climate, southerners add ingredients to their sweet and sour soup like snakehead fish, and eel with banana flowers.
Southern dishes tend to be sweeter, thus southerners have a wider choice of desserts like caramelized coconut, tamarind preserve, custard apple preserve, banana candy, amongst others.
Sweet fermented rice is by far the most popular southern dessert.