We set up the sauce and restaurant as two different businesses because we didn’t want one to adversely affect the other. In the end, the restaurant had to take out a loan from the sauce business to pay the rent, staff, and suppliers. In a way, the sauce business saved the restaurant.
Just before Thanksgiving, we closed the restaurant completely. It was such a relief. Every day I asked myself: “Are we going to break even today? Which products are going bad today? “It was just very unpredictable and stressful to sit in a restaurant for hours without customers. Our goal was to reopen during the lunar new year.
In my family tradition, the week before the New Year we make a large pot of Kho Trứng, boil it down, and add hard-boiled eggs so they’re coated in a rich, caramelized sauce. We scrape out the middle of the bitter melons and fill them with ground pork, spring onions and wood ear mushrooms. Then we’ll make a soup out of it. It is called canh khổ qua and is really bitter – it symbolizes that one eats away and absorbs the bitterness so that one can look forward to the new year. We also have a variety of pickles. Since my family is from the south, we make sweeter, more tropical cucumbers, like pickled bean sprouts with chives. My grandmother, who is 89 years old, still makes Bánh Tét Chuối, the special New Year’s rice cakes: long logs of coconut sticky rice, filled with creamy mung beans and a thin strip of pork belly and steamed in banana leaves. We eat with the whole family: my parents, grandma, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. We wear our new clothes and give each other red envelopes, called lì xì, filled with money for good luck. We play and play bingo. And even though my family is Catholic, we put a small meal aside for my late grandfather. It is not a way to worship, but to honor those who have gone before us.
Lisa as a baby with her mother in Oregon
When we celebrate the New Year, we say a tết, which means “Eat New Year”. It’s all about the food. We often had a New Year’s menu at Tân Tân – canh khổ qua, thịt kho trứng and my grandmother’s bánh tét chuối – the things we cook and eat together as a family.
This year we cannot open Tân Tân in time for the New Year celebrations and we cannot meet as a family for our Tết festival. But at least we have FaceTime. Where we are today goes back to our immigrant mentality. My parents went through so much – they were exposed to death on the open ocean and prejudice when they got here. As challenging as COVID-19 was, my parents’ experiences really prepared us all for it. We have learned to be resilient and also to be optimistic.
That is why Tết is so special to us. The new year means rebirth and a new beginning and reminds us of where we came from and who we are. We have survived and overcome so much, we will survive and overcome again.