Obsessions: Why Celebrate New Year x2 and Peanut-Sesame Cookies
+ Eileen Yin-Fei Lo Legacy + Chicken Pho Many Ways + Cookbook Insider Event
As a very near-sighted person, I woke up yesterday with miraculously clear vision. I was happily surprised, and as I laid in bed, I started thinking about some loose ends that have kept bugging me.
If you listened to my Splendid Table interview with Francis Lam, he asked me about the meaning of Tết. I responded about what Lunar New Year means to Vietnamese people, its symbolism as the ultimate holiday. No, Francis was asking me about the literal meaning of Tết, its root meaning. I didn’t know.
After taping the interview, I felt so embarrassed, like I was a fraud. Maybe some Viet listener would chide me and my ancestors going back generations for not knowing — không biết. Not knowing my culture is practically không đúng — immoral, incorrect — a slap in the face. People expect me to know certain things but to be a culinary authority means that I’m constantly dealing with imposter syndrome in the kitchen.
Who am I to speak about Tết if I don’t even really know holiday’s etymology? Maybe no one cared and my ignorance would go unnoticed.
Getting to the Root of Tết Terms
I was wrong. Earlier this week, F.S. Lee emailed that the Vietnamese term for Lunar New Year, Tết Nguyên Đán is rooted in these Chinese characters: 節元旦. The Viet term and Chinese characters both mean Festival of the First Morning of the First Day. But I wondered why that wasn’t clear to me. I’d studied Mandarin for years.
I went down the rabbit hole and the characters break down this way:
Chinese character / Mandarin / English / Vietnamese
節 / jié / festival / Tết
元 / yuán / the first or start / Nguyên
旦 / dàn / morning or daybreak / Đán
There are many Tết (festivals) in the Vietnamese calendar but Tết Nguyên Đán is the big one so we simply use Tết to refer to Lunar New Year.
The reason why I didn’t connect the Viet and Chinese terms was because the modern Chinese term for Lunar New Year is Spring Festival, 春節 (or
春节) — chūn jié in Mandarin. In all my Chinese studies, Chinese Lunar New Year was referred to as the Spring Festival.
What Was Up with China?
Turns out that over the millennia and dynastic rules, the Chinese have had many terms for Lunar New Year but 元旦 節 was most often used. The Chinese heavily influenced Vietnamese culture so the Viets picked up on the term but said the characters in a different order as Tết Nguyên Đán.
There were many upheavals in China during the twentieth century. In 1912, after a revolution overthrew imperial rule (cue The Last Emperor movie), the country’s new Nationalist leaders wanted to align their calendar with the Gregorian (solar) calendar. They also wanted to abolish Lunar New Year. January 1 became known as 元旦 (yuándàn, First Morning of the First Day). Lunar New Year became 春節 (chūnjié, Spring Festival). The government tried to force its people to celebrate January 1 and adopt the Gregorian calendar (Japan had done it so why not China?). In 1928, Lunar New Year was banned in China.
Understandably jarred by such change, Chinese people didn’t want to drop their agricultural-based traditions, which like other ancient societies, followed the twelve full cycles of the moon. Lunar New Year came back in 1929. A compromise was officially made in 1949 when the new Communist government legislated that Lunar New Year be called 春節 (chūnjié, Spring Festival). January 1 remained known as 元旦 (yuándàn). Following that, there were other Lunar New Year restrictions, but currently, people in Mainland China have two national New Year holidays: a three-day holiday for yuándàn and weeklong break for chūnjié. Seems like a fine idea for other countries too!
One or Two New Year’s in Vietnam?
To summarize (because this may have been as confusing to you as it was for me to figure out), the Vietnamese stuck to their take on the ancient Chinese term—Tết Nguyên Đán — but they also came up with a Viet shorthand—Tết. Vietnam, with its French colonial experience and contact with the West, considers January 1 as the “International New Year’s Day”. People take time off to celebrate but the activities are not carried out with the same level of fervor and importance as Tết Nguyên Đán, which is a weeklong(!) public holiday, like in China.
The overlapping of terms illustrates the Sino-Vietnamese relationship as well as how revolutions, modernization, and traditions negotiate cultural change. China and Vietnam are ancient civilizations and one thing is for sure — governments can mandate change but core cultural values remain.
I laid in bed pondering how I’d spent hours parsing what Tết literally means. I debated telling you that I didn’t know something. When I went to brush my teeth, I had two moments of clarity. First, I’d forgotten to remove my contact lenses the night before and that’s why my vision was so damn clear!
Second, with such clarity of sight and mind, I decided that you ought to know that I didn’t know all about Tết, so I found out more. Obsessions can be good.
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Almond Butter Cookie => Peanut-Sesame Cookie
Another niggly item in my busy mind was that flourless almond butter cookie I wrote about last week. A handful of folks baked the almond cookie to great success. A few asked to confirm that there is no flour. YES, this is a naturally flourless cookie dough. Because of the slight skepticism, I posted an expanded flourless almond cookie recipe on my website so you may see the dough texture and other elements. Never hesitate to ask me about something because I’ll always do my best to explain.
Secondly, I’d tried the almond butter cookie with peanut butter and didn’t like it as much as the almond original. I didn’t know why because I adore peanut butter cookies. I also vaguely mentioned vegan possibilities. I wanted a redo and truly test a vegan version.
So, yesterday morning, aside from settling the Lunar New Year debate in my head, I tweaked the flourless almond cookie recipe for a batch of peanut butter cookies. I made them vegan, using Trader Joe’s Simply Eggless egg substitute — which is awful for scrambled eggs but had the binding power necessary for a simple cookie dough like this one.
I favor Costco Kirkland organic peanut butter because it’s made using Valencia peanuts, which have superb peanut flavor. There’s just peanuts and salt in the jar. And, I used vanilla instead of almond extract because well, we’re dealing with peanuts not almonds! I coated the dough balls with toasted sesame seeds, which are delicate and handsome. Chopped peanuts don’t adhere well.
Near Baking Goof
When I went to rotate the cookie sheet midway through baking, my silicone oven mit smacked three of the cookies. They deflated partway. I quickly closed the oven door and the cookies puffed up with barely noticeable indentations. How’s that for a flourless marvel? The boo-boo disappeared.
Peanut-Sesame Cookie Crumb, Egg Subs, and Flavor
The cookies worked with the vegan egg substitute — they expanded and became crisp and delightful (see the crumb below). However, they did not expand as much as when made with real egg. As I was writing Ever-Green Vietnamese, I tried different egg substitutes but in the end, I wrote that there’s no silver bullet. It holds true even with a simple cookie dough like this one.
That said, because there’s an egg shortage and because you can bake this cookie in half or quarter batches, an egg substitute is very handy. For a quarter batch, use 1 tablespoon of egg substitute! Measuring a uniform amount of real egg is harder to do (the white seldom behaves). Whether you have almond or peanut butter, you can make a splendid cookie nibble. The peanut-sesame cookie recipe is below my signature so keep reading and scroll on down!
Also for Your Consideration
The Chinese cooking authority and cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo recently passed away. You may have her works on your shelves. Her recipes and books were always among my research resources. For example, her writing lent insights to my Peking Duck recipe. She stood 4 foot 9 inches tall but her authority made her a giant among Chinese cooking fans. More on Eileen Yin-Fei Lo in this New York Times obituary by Priya Krishna.
And soup’s on at my house. This week I scored a deal on a lovely chicken and made phở gà with it. I have my chicken pho recipes in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, The Pho Cookbook and at Viet World Kitchen (Instant Pot chicken pho, traditional stockpot phở gà, and low-carb/whole30 pho). Slurp them up!
If you’re into cookbooks — writing, reading and using them, join me and the Everything Cookbooks podcast team for a special livestream event with powerhouse editor, Raquel Pelzel of Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House. Get details and sign up for our first Insider Series event.
I hope the Year of the Rabbit/Cat started off well for you!
If you keep the peanut cookies unadorned, they’ll bake up with terrific peanutty flavor. If you roll the dough balls in sesame seeds (black and/or white), they take on a layer of sesame goodness and artful appearance. They look extra sharp with black sesame seeds! Note that I have an almond rendition of this cookie recipe in an earlier PTFS dispatch and an expanded version of the recipe on my website. Double up on your nut butter cookie adventure.
Makes 36 cookies
1 cup (7 oz) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup creamy, salted peanut butter (choose Valencia peanuts for great flavor!)
4 tablespoons beaten egg or liquid egg substitute (I used Trader Joe’s Simply Eggless)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup toasted black or white sesame seeds, or some of each
Preheat the oven to 350F with racks placed in the lower and upper third positions. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a bowl, combine the sugar, baking soda, and salt, stirring with a spatula. Add the peanut butter, egg, and vanilla extract. Mix well to create a soft dough. Let it sit for a few minutes to firm up before rolling the dough into 1-inch balls, rolling each in sesame seeds before placing it on the baking sheet. Leave about 2 inches of space between the dough balls because the cookies spread as they bake. You may need to start a third baking sheet.
Bake the cookies for 16 to 20 minutes, switching the baking sheet positions midway from front to back and top to bottom. The cookies are done when they are very lightly browned and set (touch the side of one to test). Cool the baking sheets atop wire racks before eating or storing in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Freeze for a month.
Note: If you bake only one baking sheet’s worth of cookies at a time, use the middle rack in the oven.
Thank you Andrea for your research in Tet. I love to understand the history of words and pleased to know the Chinese people stood firm with their tradition.
Great post! Thanks for sharing your experience and recipe!