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Celebrating the Season, Part 2

A look at the foods often served during Omisoka, Thai Pongal, and Tet
Kitchener Today - JMangalaseril - Toshikoshi-Pongal-Banh Chung
Left: Toshikoshi-Soba, Middle: Sakkarai Pongal, Right: Banh Chung. Photo Credit: Jasmine Mangalaseril

We're well into the festive season, with family and friends gathering to for a number of celebrations, each with favourite and traditional foods. Part One featured Hanukah, Juleaften, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. In Part Two, we'll look at Omisoka, Thai Pongal, and Tet.

Toshikoshi-Soba for Omisoka (December 31, 2019)
In the days leading up to New Year's Day, people in Japan are busy wrapping up the outgoing year with forget-the-year parties and giving appreciation gifts to clients, teachers, and others. Afterwards, they take part in osoji, a meticulous house cleaning that ensures the incoming year is free of the previous one's dust and clutter. Homes are decorated to welcome ancestral spirits, to encourage long life, abundance, and steadfastness, and to protect the home.

Since you aren't supposed to turn on the stove or eat certain types of meat during the first three days of the year (and most restaurants are closed), home kitchens are busy on Omisoka (December 31st), preparing food that will bring good luck for the New Year. Before temple bells are rung at midnight (once for each of man's 108 sins), families take part in an 800-year tradition of having soba (buckwheat) noodles, often as toshikoshi-soba. The noodles symbolize strength, resiliency, and a long, peaceful life. As they are easily bitten off, they also represent cleanly cutting off the old year's misfortunes, before the New Year starts. Try this recipe for toshikoshi-soba

Pongal for Thai Pongal (January 15-18, 2020)
The Hindu harvest festival, which also marks the end of the winter solstice, takes on different names and traditions, depending on where in South Asia you're in. All across India it's known as Lohri, but other names include, Sankrati in several Indian regions including and Nepal, Timoori in Pakistan, and Thai Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. 

Traditionally, Thai Pongal is a four-day festival. with "Pongal" referring to "boiling over" and the rice dishes made for the celebrations. In urban areas, observances are changing, but you can still find some of the practices in rural areas. These include drawing kolams (geometric patterns with chalks or rice flour) by hand to bring prosperity to the home, cattle races, spending time with friends and family, and making sweet Pongal over an outdoor fire by allowing milk to overboil before adding rice, jaggery (cane sugar). This boiling over of milk is symbolic for good fortune in the New Year. Try this recipe for sakkarai pongal.

Banh Chung for Tet (January 25, 2020)
The Lunar New Year is celebrated in a number of countries in Asia. In Vietnam, it's the most important holiday and festival, called Tet. People decorate their homes red and yellow, colours believed to bring good luck. As many believe what happens on the first day-including their actions and attitudes-of the Lunar New year will determine their fates for the rest of the year. Since the first person in the house in the New Year brings their luck with them, just before midnight, the heads of the household will leave the home and re-enter just after midnight to safeguard the family's destiny. Here, Lunar New Year's Day is for close family-visits with friends and relatives happen afterwards. Heartfelt greetings are exchanged, and children receive red envelopes with new currency. 

As working on Lunar New Year's Day is forbidden-including cooking and sweeping-food needs to be prepared in advance. While families are busy making favourite dishes, the iconic dish is bánh chung (sticky rice cake filled with mung dhal (mung beans) and pork), cooked in bamboo or banana leaves. Try this recipe for bánh chung.


Jasmine Mangalaseril

About the Author: Jasmine Mangalaseril

Jasmine is a food writer focusing on people, cultures, and cuisines.
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