I was expecting a huge celebration in Korea this lunar new year similar to Chinese New Year or Vietnamese New Year (Tết) complete with special lunar new year’s food, festivals, and packets of red envelopes stuffed with crisp money. In Korea however, the new year is more of a family holiday — people go home to be with family and eat rice cake soup.
It was a bit disappointing. Celebrating Viet new year was always a favorite growing up. I loved the traditional bright yellow flowers, huddling under a tent playing gambling games, getting money from relatives, the fireworks, women dressed up in their finest ao dais, the dragon dance, and of course all the food. Lunar new year is often referred to by non-Asians as “Chinese New Year” but beyond dragon dances and fireworks, Vietnamese New Year is uniquely Vietnamese.
Usually at this time of year my mom sends us all boxes of homemade Viet new year’s goodies — usually some candied fruits, seeds and coconut — and Sly and I will go out to a Viet neighborhood and eat a Viet meal and buy some food that can only be found during lunar new year. There was no box this year and no big Korean celebrations in our town (there were a few, but mostly kid-oriented at the local museums) so Sly and I spent the day with family (our kitties) and then went in search of Vietnamese food.
We took the subway the furthest out we’ve been so far — to an industrial part of town where we heard there was a small Vietnamese (and non-Korean Asians) community that lived there mostly to work in the factories. The place we found was part Vietnamese grocery store, part restaurant, part karaoke, part lounge, and I think also part someone’s house. We sat down and ordered two bowls of pho — they only had one type — off the Vietnamese-only menu. It was late afternoon and we were one of only a few groups of people eating at the restaurant.
Eventually we discovered our server spoke really good English (as well as Korean). Sly chatted away with her becoming her new BFF in the way that only two foreigners with a shared love of “foreign” (in this case, Vietnamese) food can. He told her that I was half-Viet which made everyone in the restaurant swivel their heads to stare. We were definitely the odd ones out and yet I felt oddly at home there, the food and the language reminding me so much of family gatherings during this time of the year.
After slurping down our soup we ordered a typical Viet dessert drink — Chè — warm, sweet coconut milk with sweet mung beans, boiled peanuts, curly chewy tapioca strips, sweet beans and shaved coconut flakes all mixed together and served over ice. It was a tall glass of sweet delicious comfort — a taste of home on the other side of the world.
Before leaving we bought a traditional Viet steamed pork, bean, and rice cake wrapped tightly in leaves — bánh chưng — typically only eaten during lunar new year. The square shape, as my mom told me later that evening, represented the earth whereas another Viet new year treat — a round cake stuffed with seeds — represented the moon. We exchanged happy new year wishes with our new Vietnamese BFF and then walked across the street to check out the only other store that was open — eMart.
So while we didn’t celebrate this lunar new year with much festivity or fanfare, we still celebrated in our own quiet way in a simple little market-restaurant in an industrial, less picturesque, less glamourous part of town. Stripped of it’s glitter it didn’t seem like it would be much of a celebration, but if you searched hard enough you could still find the vivid tastes and smells and smiling faces and new friends and family connections — all the important things that make up Tết. It was not quite the lunar new year I envisioned, but it was more than enough: beautiful and memorable in its own way.
Here’s to new beginnings.
Chúc Mừng Năm Mới / 새해 복 많이 받으세요 / Happy lunar new year, everyone!
World Asia Market / Café Que Huong // ADDRESS: 775-15 Igok-dong, Dalseo-gu / COST: $6-$15 / CUISINE: Vietnamese // No frills restaurant run by native Viets. You will probably need to be at least somewhat familiar with Viet food to eat here. The menu is entirely in Vietnamese and on the wall. There is another “menu” with photos on another wall, but this is only five of the items. Fortunately, in addition to Viet, they speak Korean and English so I’m sure you could describe the dish you want. Or, if you aren’t sure, just plug the Viet into good search and look at the images that pop-up. Technology rules. As for the pho –I’ve heard it described by so many people as “an authentic bowl of pho” to which I must say (please excuse the dbaggy-ness) that those people must have never been to Houston. Or I guess a ‘real’ pho place in VN. I mean it’s a decent bowl, but not the most amazing we’ve ever had (then again we have very high standards when it comes to Viet food as my mom is the best cook ever). The broth was a lot less developed than what I’m used to, the meat portion was smaller than normal and the plate of greens lacked limes (they aren’t very common here) and thai basil. It wasn’t the best bowl of pho I’ve ever eaten but it more than adequately satisfied our cravings and was still a good bowl of soup. I The sweet coconut dessert drink on the other hand: one of the best I’ve had. Non-Koreanized Viet (I’m guessing that is why this is “authentic”) is apparently hard to find here. Without at doubt we will be back. DIRECTIONS: Take the #2 Subway line to Seongso Industrial Complex station, exit 5. Once outside of exit 5, walk straight for about 5 minutes until you see a bus stop on the left hand side. In front of you should be a building with a pinkish-red colored awning that has “marie claire” and “pierre cardin” written on it. Peer around the side of this building on the right and in the diagonal alley you will notice the huge World Asia Market sign.