Tai Nguyen returns from the house bearing a stalk of lemongrass, its dark green tail shredded with a knife to create a kind of makeshift cooking brush. “Very traditional, hey,” he laughs, before dipping his handicraft kitchen tool into the bowl of marinade he has just prepared. We’re standing before a metal spit spearing the 12-kilogram lamb slaughtered by a friend near Ballarat. “The ones we get from the butcher have too much fat,” he explains, adding that this is his signature contribution: a three-hour cooking process that is played out at every important family occasion.
It’s 1 pm and the driveway of Tai’s mum’s home in Norlane West, about an hour’s drive west of Melbourne, is bustling with activity in preparation for the Nguyen family’s biggest yearly celebration – Vietnamese New Year (Tết Nguyên Đán) which, in Sino-Viet, translates as ‘first day of the year’. “If we were in Vietnam, we would be partying for 10 days,” laughs Tai’s sister-in-law Thuy, conceding that here, they will make do with 48 hours of family and feasting. The family’s Catholic faith means many of the Buddhist rituals associated with the New Year are not practised. Instead, it is all about social connection... and food.
With its family of six boys and one daughter, the Nguyen household is the central hive of activity within the local Vietnamese community. It’s a situation that has arisen in part from the sheer force of familial numbers, but also from longevity: mother Thien Thi Phan fled Vũng Tàu in Vietnam’s south 25 years ago. A boat to Singapore led them to a refugee camp in the Philippines where they lived for six months before being accepted by Australia. “Without her, there would be no New Year,” says Seana, the Australian wife of youngest son, Loi. “She is our reason to celebrate. Her journey to Australia as a single mum with all her children in tow is inspirational.”
The six sons now work alongside each other growing the family’s two businesses: fresh produce grown on their farms, supplying a growing fruit and vegetable wholesale business. The family has held tightly to its heritage. Thien speaks just a few words of English, and traditionally prepared food is the dietary mainstay. For the New Year celebration, this means chả giò (Vietnamese spring rolls), thịt kho nước dùa (pork and egg stew), alongside the children’s favourite xôi gâc (coloured sticky rice). “Tết,” explains Seana, “is a time of excess.”
As the men drink Coronas in the garage away from the heat of the summer sun, Thien works alongside her Vietnamese daughters-in-law to bring to life the flavours of a family celebration. Dung, the wife of her son Tri, rolls squares of vermicelli noodles into small rolls that are doused with spring onion flash-fried in oil, as an accompaniment to the barbecued pork picked up from a nearby Vietnamese restaurant.
Later, when the light softens, the real fun begins. Giant wheels of firecrackers (phao) hung from the garage roof explode in a two-minute cacophony, to scare off evil spirits and bad luck, and ring in the new year with happiness, good fortune and health. Eventually, the noise quietens. But not the intensity. Children run around flaunting red envelopes (bao lìxì) stuffed with money – said to bring good fortune to the giver and the recipient. The stream of arriving guests is ceaseless. “We will stay up all night,” Tai earlier promised with a grin. As the sun dips and the chatter continues, his vow looks likely to bear fruit.
Photography by Olga Bennett