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Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Little Lesson on Ancestor Worship and My Great-Grandfather's Death Anniversary Dinner

Ong Co Ngoai's Dam Gio (Vietnamese Paternal Grandmother's Father's Death Anniversary)

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.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my little lesson on ancestor worship, and glimpse into what it's like when my family gets together. I brought something for this dinner too but I'll post that tomorrow.


  1. The banh it la gai looks interesting. What does the la gai taste like?

    My family usually buys most of the items; we rarely ever make anything beyond xoi or soup.

  2. why do they always make the same foods? im getting sick of those.

    i only like the jellyfish salad. thats what i eat at parties since everybody gets catered foods from our auntie.

    i do miss grandmo banh nam. she used to make me go buy bananas leaves every week. she makes the best. i dont like it with mung beans as pictured.


  3. your pictures make me super hungry/homesick for some home cooking!!

  4. That was a really interesting post regarding your customs. I'm Asian but catholic so we never really had customs like those.

  5. oh my God I haven't seen food like this for a very long time. It brought back a lot of memories :D

  6. Hi KLe,
    The la gai is really to color the banh it. It doesn't really have a taste to me. Or maybe it's too subtle b/c wrapped in the banana leaf, I just taste the banana leaf. :P

    In my family, almost everything is homemade. We've just always done it that way, but it's pretty rare these days.

    I don't mind the same foods. I don't cook them that often so I like it when the aunts and uncles make it. I miss ba noi's cooking too. :(

    Come home then!

    Yeah, even if you did observe these, they vary from family to family too.

    It's hard being away from family huh? I missed mine a lot when I lived abroad too.

  7. I am an American who was just invited to an anniversary dinner. Can you suggest any items I can bring. I do not ant to offend my host on this day.


  8. Hi Anonymous,

    Well, the food will have already been cooked and offered by the time dinner starts. Usually when guests are invited, it's just for the feasting. :)

    I'm not sure where you're located, but an appropriate gift whenever you go to any Vietnamese or Chinese household is usually some nice seasonal fruit. You don't need to get fancy about it. Something from the farmers' markets is always good. I know strawberries are still in season. Or you can splurge and buy slightly more expensive fruit such as cherimoya or mangoes or lychees from the Asian grocery stores. But even a nice bag of oranges is good. It's a small gesture, but one that's very much appreciated. I make it a point never to arrive empty-handed to any dinner party anyway.

    Hope it helps, and let me know how it goes!

  9. That's a tasty looking spread of food there!

    I have a question related to ancestor veneration - there used to be an anglo tradition to burn incense if an honored friend visted your home. Are there any similar uses of incense or food offering to honor someone who is still living? I don't know, like would it be appropriate to light incense in honor of your favorite aunt, even though she was still living?

  10. Jonathan,
    Do you mean Anglo as in Anglo-Saxon, or as in white? In either case, I've never heard of that tradition. I only know of incense in that New Age way associated with just scents.

    However, if you're using Asian incense sticks, the kind meant for the altar, it is a definite no-no to light it for the living. Incense and altar offerings are meant for the dead.

    You can certainly offer someone a nice snack or meal if they visit, but not in the manner shown here.

  11. Yes, I meant Anglo-Saxon.

    Thanks for the info!


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