Monday, February 8, 2010

A Day for The Kitchen God

On my way out my building yesterday, I was greeted by a sight you don't see everyday: a street vendor selling live goldfish. It reminded me that, before the day was through, I would have to make my offerings to Ông Công, the Land Genie, and Ông Táo, the Kitchen God.

Ông Táo lives in the kitchen of each person's home, watching over the hearth. On the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, this most intimate of gods, privvy to the family's personal secrets, gives his report on the household to Ngọc Hoàng, the Jade Emperor in heaven. To ensure a favorable report, each family offers food, clothes, and money, and a fish (carp) for Ông Táo to travel on. Most households combine offerings to Ông Táo on this day with offerings to Ông Công, the guardian of each family's land. The day is thus a celebration of hearth and home.

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The mythic origin of the ritual is Chinese, though it has been changed to suit Vietnamese sensibilities. According to the Vietnamese version, there once was a couple, Trọng Cao and Thị Nhi who, while poor, were very much in love. At some point they were separated (versions of the story differ as to why), and Thị Nhi married another man, Phạm Lang. A desperate Trọng Cao went off in search of his wife.

One day he came to the home of Phạm Lang while the master was away. Thị Nhi recognized her old husband, and to avoid embarrassing questions, hid him from her current husband in the hearth (or a heap of straw, depending on the version of the story). Phạm Lang returned and unknowingly lit a fire, killing Trọng Cao. Driven by grief, Thị Nhi threw herself into the fire and, when Phạm Lang realized what he'd done, soon followed her into the flames. The Jade Emperor, moved by this "tragedy of love, faithfulness and sacrifice," (Hữu Ngọc) made them into household gods.

While many Vietnamese may not know the mythic origins of the day, appeasing Ông Táo is a ritual few would fail to observe. To start, three traditional foods are offered: giò, xôi gấc, and bánh chưng.

Giò is a processed meat, similar to bologna, made by pounding lean pork meat into a smooth paste, wrapping it in banana leaves, and then cooking it. It's much better than it sounds: silky, moist, and sweet. Xôi gấc is xôi, or sticky rice, which has been cooked with gấc fruit (Momordica cochinchinensis), a bittersweet, melon-like gourd. The seeds of the gấc fruit have a thick, fleshy aril that gives the rice a red-orange tint, as well as a subtly sweet flavor. Since red is associated with wealth and prosperity, xôi gấc is a favorite of the New Year season.
The final food, bánh chưng, could be the subject of a separate post. Bánh chưng is a traditional Vietnamese cake made from sticky rice, and stuffed with fatty pork, mung bean paste, and seasonings. Ritually wrapped in bamboo or banana leaves and moulded into a square shape – symbolic of the earth – bánh chưng is as essential to Vietnamese New Year celebrations as turkey is to the American Thanksgiving. Its preparation ostensibly dates back to the Hùng Dynasty, when one of the sons of the emperor, after a divine visitation, made the dish and won the kingdom from his brothers. Bánh chưng could, as easily as spring rolls or phở, be considered the national dish of Vietnam.
Alongside the food, the proper observance of this day includes offerings of paper clothing to the kitchen gods. Ông Công is given a hat, traditional jacket, and boots; for Ông Táo there are three pairs of slippers and the fish, to transport him to heaven. This is where the live fish on the street come in. While some families offer paper carp as a symbolic gesture, the offering of live fish is still popular. After being offered to Ông Táo, these fish are later released into a nearby lake or river – in Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake is particularly popular.

All offerings are placed on the family altar. Three sticks of incense are lit; this is the occasion to pray for the health and prosperity of the household. Once the incense has burned out, the clothing is burned, and the food can be eaten. Partaking of this ritual, I felt immensely grateful for my home and hearth, and for all the blessings I have received in the past year. In my prayer to the Kitchen God, it was hard to think of anything to wish for. Thanks seemed more appropriate.

2 comments:

  1. Hal, that is so beautiful. I have a great love of meaningful ritual, and as usual you have brought us, your readers, with you in your day of thanksgiving for the blessings of your home and the earth you place your feet on. Thank you.

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  2. The Chinese have a version of Banh Chung and it is triangular shaped dumpling of the same ingredients but in honor of a suicidal scholar

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