My children, nearly five and nearly four, were adopted from Vietnam and Ethiopia, and the biggest annual holidays in the countries of their births fall close to the same time each year. Ethiopian Epiphany runs from January 18-20 and is celebrated there with much more hoopla than their Christmas on January 7, with parades and mass baptisms and feasting on the meat of the fat-tailed sheep. Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, begins like Chinese New Year on different dates each year, January 29 this year. The days-long festival celebrates the return of the buffoon-like kitchen gods to heaven. The Vietnamese prepare by cleaning their house until it sparkles (I deviated from this part of the tradition) and cooking up a storm so no work will be have to be done during Tet, which will be devoted to fireworks, feasting and visiting relatives.
So I planned a modest feast to celebrate both holidays. I would have liked to invite a hundred of my best friends for the occasion, but my house is so tiny that any large gatherings are reserved for when it's warmer outdoors. So we invited a few nearest and dearest and I served the food buffet style, with the Vietnamese stuff on and near the stove and the Ethiopian on the small kitchen table.
It struck me while I was planning the food that the two cuisines, Ethiopian and Vietnamese, are so different that it seemed odd to serve them at the same meal. But as I cooked it I realized that both call for lots of garlic and ginger and sweet spices. My mother, who had never tasted either cuisine before, said that the flavors were much the same. “It's that ancient spice trail,” said my husband, and actually some of the food of Vietnam, especially in the south, is influenced indirectly by India to the west, and many people who have tried Ethiopian food say the rich spice blends and buttery foundation remind them of Indian food.
We started with nem, or cha gio, Vietnamese spring rolls that were fun to make. I rolled delicate rice paper wrappers around a filling of ground pork, minced tree ear mushrooms, bean threads, garlic and ginger. They were fried and then eaten by wrapping them in Boston lettuce with fresh mint, cilantro, sliced cucumber and star fruit, and then dipping them into Vietnam's classic dipping sauce, nuoc cham, of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, chopped bird chilies and garlic.
Artifacts, art, scarves and serving ware from both countries did the decorating, with a shuffle of music from our CDs of classic and contemporary Ethiopian and Vietnamese music. My kids dressed in the colorful costumes of their birth lands, topped by a red conical hat of poster board for my daughter and a black pillbox type for my son.
We moved on to the main courses with a few more Vietnamese dishes to go with steamed jasmine rice. There was coleslaw that I dressed with something similar to the nuoc cham but with touches of canola oil and rice vinegar added. Friend Erin brought a pretty pink and red Vietnamese dish of fat shrimp in a sweet caramel sauce embellished with red pepper strips. I had stewed some pork riblets in sweet spices, fish sauce and coconut juice, great fun with the atypical kitchen tools of drill, screwdriver and hammer.
On the Ethiopian side of the room there was a big platter of freshly cooked injera, big pancakes made of a fermented dough of teff and wheat flours. In Ethiopia it acts as fork, napkin, plate and tablecloth, a sour but tasty contrast to the sweet complex stews.
One was the classic feast dish, doro wat, a stew of chicken, red onions and boiled eggs swimming in spiced butter and the fiery spice mixture berbere. We also had some milder red lentil stew colored yellow with turmeric and a luscious on-the-bone lamb alicha cooked by my brother-in-law Mig.
For dessert we had two lovely Vietnamese desserts brought by generous good-cookin' guests: a sumptuous banana cake with ice cream baked by Erin, plus a creamy coconut flan provided by my sister Calico.
We were likely the only ones in town having such a dinner, but it was great fun and I hope it will become an annual tradition for us.
This ran in my column "Ravenous" in the Kingston (NY) Times on February 2.