This past Friday was Vietnamese (or Chinese) New Year. I’m ashamed to say I’d almost forgotten about it. When I was young, we would go to the temple in the mornings and end the evening with firecrackers that crackled across the sky. One year shortly after college, I arrived in Saigon on New Year’s Eve. We drove to the hotel through the celebratory honking of mopeds that crisscrossed through the streets.
This year, it was just my husband and me, states away from my family who were celebrating. It was cold in Ohio, the kind of cold that makes your stomach crinkle in on itself. I imagined the rice cakes filled with bean paste, pink and green-tinted coconut strips, crispy pork cushioned with a perfect layer of fat. I couldn’t replicate that feast, but wanted my own way to commemorate. One dish kept coming to me: dense, porridgy chao (or congee or jook), topped with a lightly caramelized egg and a sprinkle of scallions.
I’m always amazed at how such simple ingredients can produce flavors so complex. It’s not sophisticated food, and I don’t even think it’s particularly memorable in and of itself, but my bowl of chao was the reminder that I needed.
As I lifted the first, steaming spoonful to my mouth, I got an inkling of what the next year would bring. Warm and hearty food. More visits with my family. More stories that flow in and out of the kitchen, enveloping us in the familiar notes of our past. I’m declaring it the year of chao.