Just a few decades ago, mut was as integral and indispensable for Tet, the Lunar New Year festival, as the banh chung (square sticky rice cake). The making or even purchasing of the traditional candies were exciting signs that the festival was round the corner.
In those days, the vivid colors of the fruit candies were a magical treat for children that only came once a year. Having had to make do with very few snacks the whole year long, children eagerly awaited the arrival of Tet just so they could have the colorful, sugared candies.
While adults enjoyed the treats, too, they had added significance. Mut was a special offering made by Vietnamese households to their ancestors every Tet. They were snacks to be served to New Year guests along with green tea. Tasting sweet things on the first day of the Lunar New Year would also sweeten the year with luck and happiness.
Hong Van, a 60-year-old resident of Hue Street in Hanoi, said mut Tet was an emotional experience for her as the festival drew near.
“Before the country’s doi moi reforms (introduced in 1986), when I was young, mut was something so important that it had to be exchanged for stamps and tickets.
“A household would be able to buy one tiny box of mut for Tet. We did not even have enough sugar to make the candy ourselves, so mut was precious treasure then.”
A sense of community
By the middle of the last lunar month, scenes of people busy preparing mut for Tet, talking, joking and laughing were common, and they are an unforgettable memory for Van.
“People prepared ingredients to cook mut depending on their situation. The atmosphere was more exciting when the neighborhood worked together. On the day of the Kitchen God, 23rd of the last lunar month, many trays of mut were taken outdoors to dry under the sun, creating vibrant, eye-catching colors,” she recalled.
Lotus seeds candy. Photo courtesy of Bep Nha Xu Quang.
There were mainly six kinds of mut that were part of the traditional Tet tray, and each had its own symbolic meaning: coconut candy meant happy gatherings; lotus seeds candy signaled fertility; ginger candy, coziness; ash gourd candy, the wish for a healthy and prosperous year; kumquat candy, luck, peace and prosperity; and peanut candy, longevity.
The making of the candy is fairly simple, with very few, inexpensive ingredients needed – just seasonal fruits, seeds and vegetables, sugar, in some cases, condensed milk and vanilla – the fragrance would pervade the atmosphere and stir the senses.
The way mut was packed and served was also very attractive, because it was part of the prayer seeking blessings of ancestors for a year of warmth, peace, happiness.
Then after the open door, market oriented economy was introduced, the situation changed. Not long into doi moi reforms, a series of confectionery brands grew to become familiar names – Hanoi Confectionery Joint Stock Company in the capital city, Thanh Long Company in Ho Chi Minh City, Huu Nghi Food, and others.
These companies recognized the market for Tet sweetmeats and introduced them with increasing quality and attractive packaging over the years to meet consumers’ tastes. But even they have suffered the onslaught by foreign confectionaries that have flooded the Vietnamese market in recent years with a wide range of quality products that are difficult to compete with on various levels, including packaging, marketing and advertising.
Xuan Dinh, a village in Hanoi where making mut has been a traditional vocation for years, has struggled to survive and hold its own over the last three years.
The owner of a workshop that makes ash gourd candy in the capital city’s Xuan Tao Ward, Bac Tu Liem District, said that his output had been dropping every year for several years now. If, in the early part of last decade, he had to hire as many as 20- 25 helpers working constantly in three shifts to meet the demand of clients, he barely has work for seven part-time employees now.
For the younger generation, the traditional mut seems to be old-school and boring compared to the brand new, fancy confectioneries that have come into the market from different parts of the world.
A stall selling imported mut on Hanoi’s Hang Buom Street is crowded with shoppers. It sells both salted and sugared dried fruits and imported candies. The owner, in her mid-50s, calls on passers-by to taste every snack on the shelves without hesitation and buy what they like best.
Among the varieties available were: Thailand apricot jam, Hong Kong dried persimmons, American raisins and Australian dried plums. It was evident that these imported items had sidelined the traditional mut items on the shelves, with the imports arranged in more favorable and eye-catching places.
“There so many varieties of imported mut looking yummy here. I have just bought a bunch for the Tet holiday. The colors will suit my new Tet mut tray so I do not need to decorate the Tet dining table much to welcome guests,” said Mai Linh, a resident of Hanoi’s Dong Da District.
While the heyday of traditional Vietnamese mut has gone there are still people sticking to tradition and making the traditional mut on their own.
Van’s daughter, Phuong Ngan, 27, said Tet becomes more meaningful and harmonious when she makes the traditional coconut candies, mut dua, by herself.
“It is not very time-consuming to make, and when I present these to my cousins and friends, I get the feeling of greater connectedness during Tet.”