These pictures are a couple of months old. Lately it seems like Saturdays are when I eat my family's cooking so this is as good a time as any to post these photos. Pictures with no recipe? Yeah, because I'm lazy like that. Incidentally, cousin Q made ribs for dinner so this was the fourth Saturday in a row that I was fed. :P
For those who aren't familiar with ancestor worship, it's a way to honor loved ones and their memories on the anniversary of their death. It is not, as the name suggests and as many people seem to think, literally worshipping your ancestors as if they were a God or gods. Ancestor worship is rooted in Confucian principles of filial piety as a way to show respect. In spirit, it is similar to All Saints Day or Day of the Dead, where people visit cemeteries or light candles for their loved ones.
In my family, death anniversary dinners are a way for the family to gather round, for us to cook their favorite foods, and to honor their memory. (This is for death anniversaries of two years after their passing or more. Recent passings have a slightly more elaborate set of rituals that combine Buddhist traditions as well.) The death anniversary date is based on the lunar calendar so it changes from year to year on the Gregorian calendar. Vietnamese families that practice ancestor worship will usually have an altar with a framed picture of their loved ones, red candles on both sides, and sometimes a small container to hold incense. It is believed that the spirit of the deceased returns on this date to visit or watch over their family.
Rituals vary from culture to culture, and from family to family. My ong ngoai (Vietnamese maternal grandfather) passed away when I was 5 years old so I've always grown up helping my mom prepare his death anniversary dinner. While I can taste the food when preparing it to make sure it came out right, I was not allowed to eat any part of it before it was "offered" to my grandfather. To show proper respect, my mom would always buy new foods and set it aside specifically for the death anniversary dinner. For instance, she would never raid her fridge and cook up whatever she found, and if she bought a bag of oranges for the plate of fruit on the altar, I can't eat one orange and leave the rest for the "offering." I think this goes back to notions of how a child shows respect toward their elders. I was always taught to use both hands when I offered anything to an adult, and that we couldn't eat until they ate first. So carry those same concepts into ancestor worship, and it would be considered rude to eat before my grandfather had "eaten."
So after cooking up an elaborate feast, the various foods are set up in front of the altar. We usually fill up several rice bowls since the deceased loved one may have wanted to bring some friends. :) (This is why leaving an extra rice bowl is taboo at the dinner table. You're basically inviting the spirits to come dine with you.) Tea may be poured as well. My cousin used to light a cigarette and leave it burning in an ashtray to honor his dad who smoked.
Then each family member lights incense, bows three times in front of the altar, silently says whatever blessings they want to say to the loved one, and bows three times again.
After a respectful amount of time for the spirits to have "eaten," the family then dines.
This dinner was for my ong co (Vietnamese great-grandfather). Specifically, my dad's maternal grandfather. So as you can see going across from the plate of fruit, there's banh tet, tea, banh beo, Cha Gio (Vietnamese Egg Rolls), banh it la gai, chicken, Hainanese chicken, chicken feet, banh nam, fish maw soup, the empty space for the roast pig, more Hainanese chicken, and Hainanese chicken rice.
Here's the side view. Everything was homemade expect for the roast pig.
This Hainanese chicken rice was made by my youngest aunt's husband, who isn't Hainanese, but he learned the proper techniques from us so it's good. :)
No Hainanese chicken rice is complete without the ginger dipping sauce, of course.
Banh beo made by my youngest aunt. She made several big plates of these. Mmm.
My oldest uncle's wife's chicken feet. I think she bought them pre-fried and then seasoned them herself.
I wish I could wrap my egg rolls as perfectly as she always does.
My youngest uncle's wife made banh nam. This was my ba noi (Vietnamese paternal grandmother)'s specialty and no one can make it like she did. Four years after she's gone, I still can't eat this without crying so I usually don't. My earliest food memories were wiping banana leaves while she told me stories of her childhood, or my dad's childhood.
My grandmother's other specialty was banh it la gai, which was invented in the neighboring province of Binh Dinh.The blackness comes from cooking and straining la gai, a nettle-like leaf.
It's filled with sweet peanuts and coconut, or sometimes mung bean. My oldest uncle's wife has now taken over the task of making these on occasion.