Sometimes, January can feel like a deflated balloon. The air of the holidays has squeaked out and there’s nothing left but a long, cold winter.
But wait, there’s one more chance to celebrate the new year and get a little luck on your side: Lunar New Year is almost here. The date is set by the moon cycles, so this year, Lunar New Year falls on Jan. 25.
Eric and Sophie Banh have been celebrating Lunar New Year since they were children in Vietnam. The Banhs are known around town as the “Saigon Siblings” — the name of their restaurant group. They own the restaurants Monsoon and Monsoon Bellevue, three locations of Ba Bar, and, until recently, Central Smoke (which closed suddenly on Jan. 10).
“I was in Saigon last year, and I figured we should stay here to celebrate Lunar New Year, and guess what, it’s dead. Because everything is closed,” Eric Banh says.
Sophie adds that many shops close for one to two weeks, partially to take a break but also to prepare for the three days of Lunar New Year celebrations at home with family and close friends. People visit hair salons, buy new clothes or shoes and stop by the bank to get brand-new bills to stuff into lucky red envelopes for children.
Things are different for the Banhs here; they’ve kept Monsoon open every Lunar New Year since the Capitol Hill location opened nearly 21 years ago, serving a special celebratory menu of traditional dishes. Some years they have dancers and firecrackers, but this year, they’ll be keeping it low-key with additional menu items served Jan. 20-26.
However, much of their staff celebrates the holiday, so little things have crept into the restaurant over the years. Like resolutions and setting intentions for the New Year, celebrating the Lunar New Year has a lot to do with capturing and ensuring luck.
“You’re not supposed to sweep, especially on the first day. That means you sweep all the luck away. And you don’t throw away the garbage,” says Eric.
Sophie says her staff sweeps and mops the night before — ensuring they get it done before midnight — to clean away the prior year and prepare for the one ahead.
Additionally, they say all cooking should be done on Lunar New Year’s eve to further bolster your luck.
“Moreover, these are days you visit family members to wish them health, luck and prosperity — so no time to cook,” Sophie says.
New Year’s Day dishes served at Monsoon include a labor-intensive, rolled sticky-rice cake called banh tet, which is stuffed with mung beans or cha lua, a Vietnamese ham. There’s also a braised pork shoulder called thit heo kho trung. All can be prepared the day before and just heated up. Glutinous rice dumplings with sweet ginger syrup called banh troi nuoc (or “happiness dumplings”) are served for dessert.
Every dish served has a round element to it, including a soft-boiled egg in the braised pork for auspicious reasons.
“Round means long life,” Eric says.
Sophie adds that the round theme extends to other items on the table, like rounded corners on plates or round bowls.
“No right angles anywhere,” she cautions.
Finally, everyone must be in a good mood.
“Doesn’t matter if you’re upset or angry, your face has to be a smile. No grouchy,” Sophie says with a laugh. “My kitchen is a lot of Asians. When they walk in, they say, ‘OK, today no one talk back. Everyone smile.’”
“The first day is intense,” Eric adds.
On Jan. 25, every Monsoon guest will get a red envelope stuffed with a piece of sesame candy for luck, along with the words “Chuc Mung Nam Moi,” or Happy New Year.
To help you get a little luck in your own life, they Banhs provided a recipe for thit heo kho trung, pork shoulder braised in coconut water. It’s the same one their mother made for their family when they were growing up in Saigon, and after they fled Vietnam and settled in Edmonton, Alberta.
It’s a simple, comforting dish that will get us through these next few cold weeks — and hopefully give you a little luck.
Thit Heo Kho Trung Recipe
By Eric and Sophie Banh, Monsoon
Makes: 4 servings
2 pounds pork shoulder or pork leg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon peppercorn
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon fish sauce
5 cloves garlic
3 cups coconut water
1 cup water
4 soft-boiled eggs
Caramelized Sugar Ingredients:
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon water
1. Season the pork with the salt, sugar, pepper, 1 teaspoon fish sauce and garlic; marinate for at least 1 hour.
2. Next, make the caramelized sugar. Add sugar to a large pot over medium heat, stirring gently until lightly browned, then add the water and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until the mixture is a rich, golden color. Remove from heat.
3. In a different pot, add the pork and sauté until lightly browned. Then add the cooked pork to the pot with the caramelized sugar and stir to combine. Add the coconut water, water and remaining fish sauce, stirring to combine. Braise for 1½-2 hours on the stove at a simmer, or until the pork is soft and tender to your liking. Test for flavor; add more fish sauce if not salty enough or more sugar if you like it sweeter.
4. To serve, pour in bowls and top with a soft-boiled egg and thinly sliced scallions. Can be prepared ahead of time, reheated and served on Lunar New Year. It’s a tradition for Vietnamese to never cook on the first day of Lunar New Year.