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Chef Mary Nguyen, a Fire Dragon, Talks About Chinese New Year Traditions and More

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Chef Mary Nguyen of Parallel 17 and Olive & Finch
Chef Mary Nguyen of Parallel 17 and Olive & Finch
Photo: Adam Larkey

The Chinese New Year is on Friday, January 31 and with it begins the Year of the Horse. The new year is a long-anticipated and very important celebration in the Chinese calendar and Asian communities acknowledge it with lavish feasts and specific traditions. Chef Mary Nguyen of Parallel 17 and the newly opened Olive & Finch shared some of the memories she has made and customs she follows for the new year celebration in her Vietnamese family.

What are some of your first memories celebrating Chinese New Year? The Vietnamese celebrate the New Year with a Tết festival. Tết symbolizes bringing in the New Year with the beginning of spring and a fresh start. It is the most observed holiday amongst the Vietnamese. Growing up my family spent weeks in preparation and planning for the celebration. I remember waking up early to find my mother and father cooking and preparing our house. It was one of the few days a year that I knew my entire family would be present. As a child, Tết was most characterized by the beautiful colors of the decorations, the warm wishes from friends and family, and the wonderful flavors.

What are the most important traditions around this holiday? There are many traditions related to this holiday but the most important in our house is the veneration of dead loved ones. In traditional Vietnamese homes, there is an altar dedicated to ancestors. Every year offerings are placed there. My parents would make sure that before anyone eats, all of the food would be placed on the altar, and my father would say a blessing for our loved ones.

Are there ingredients that are special in celebrating Chinese New Year? Some important ingredients in celebrating Tết are coconut, watermelon, Vietnamese sausage, boiled chicken, candied fruit and sticky rice. Coconut is often used for desserts. The watermelon symbolizes good fortune for the coming year. The chicken is cooked as an offering for our ancestors. And the (often red) sticky rice or Xôi Gấc is a staple of the Tết feast, to be paired with the Vietnamese sausage.

Do the ingredients you use ever change with the patron animal for the year to come? I have not experienced a change in dishes for the zodiac, but perhaps other cultures do change their dishes for the corresponding patron animal.

Do you have dishes you like to make to celebrate this holiday? Why do they matter to you? Nothing says Tết to me like my mother's Banh Chung or Banh Day. This is a square or round cake wrapped in leaves and steamed. Banh Chung and Banh Day takes days to make and the cakes are sticky rice filled with either savory pork or sweet mung bean. It is a very Tết dish.

What is your sign in the Chinese zodiac? Do you believe in the characteristics associated with that sign? I am a dragon, and I do think that my sign matches with my personality. They are characterized by dominance and ambition. They thrive with challenges and are career-driven. I am a fire dragon, which is described by a short temper and impulsiveness....I think that those who know me well would agree that I can be a bit impulsive and can have a short temper in certain situations.

Nguyen's first restaurant, Parallel Seventeen, will serve a three-course Chinese New Year menu that includes grilled scallops with smoked salsify, house pancetta and arugula pesto, as well as a Chinese sausage stuffed quail, with mushroom bread pudding and caramelized onion puree.

· Chef Mary Nguyen Opens Olive & Finch [EDen]
· Chef Mary Nguyen on Seven Years at Parallel 17 [EDen]

Parallel 17

1600 E 17th Avenue, Denver, CO 80218 303 399 0988 Visit Website