Bribing the Kitchen Gods

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A local woman is offering food, carps and clothing for the Kitchen Gods

On the 23rd of the last lunar month every year, the large kitchen in Ms Ly Thi Phuong's house in Hanoi's Gia Lam District becomes extremely busy.

The 56-year-old prepares for something important for most Vietnamese - a gala farewell party for the three Kitchen Gods who will ascend to heaven to report on the family's actions in the past year and ask for the Jade Emperor's blessing and support for it in the coming year, before returning on Lunar New Year's Eve.

The Kitchen Gods comprise of two male and one female deity. According to legend, a man left his wife because he was too poor. She then married another man while her old husband became a beggar. One day her old husband came and begged for food without realizing it was her house.

They recognized each other, and the man felt so ashamed that he jumped into the stove and died. The wife felt so sorry for him that she did the same, and her new husband followed suit too. Hearing about their faithful love, the Jade Emperor permitted the three of them to live together in the kitchen as Kitchen Gods.

There are many legends about the Kitchen Gods, but this one is the most popular.

Many people think the custom of worshiping these deities came from China. However, Nguyen Vu Tuan Anh, director of the Center for Research in Principles of Ancient Oriental Astrology, believes it is an old Vietnamese custom.

"The farewell ceremony for the Kitchen Gods has always been closely linked with Tet," he wrote in a recent article for VietNamNet.

"And the story about Tet was first told during the reign of the sixth Hung King in the 15th century BCE. Therefore, it can be established that our ancestors were the first to worship the Kitchen Gods."

The gala farewell party for the three Kitchen Gods this year falls on January 16th, 2012

Vietnamese believe that the Kitchen Gods are the guardian spirits of the kitchen who will bless the family members and bring them health, happiness, and prosperity.

"We always prepare a big farewell party and offer the best food for the three gods in our home," Phuong says.

"They have helped us take care of our kitchen and blessed us with good health, and we really appreciate their blessings. Normally I make some traditional Tet dishes like pork pie, spring rolls, boiled chicken, dry bamboo shoot soup, and onion pickles."

Since her two daughters are in office, Phuong normally prepares for the party alone.

"Vietnamese men including my husband rarely join in the cooking.

"So I usually prepare for the party alone, and if the day falls on a weekend my daughters help."

The dishes are arranged on a tray and placed on the altar for the Kitchen Gods, which is normally beside the altar for ancestors, at noon.

There are also votive offerings like paper clothing (three pairs of boots, three hats, and three robes) and money. One more important offering is the carp which are placed in a small basin.

"I always buy votive offerings on Hang Ma Street which is filled with the stuff since early in the lunar month.

"Today, many people also buy paper mobile phones, motorbikes, and cars to make the gods' trip easier.

"But it is believed that the Kitchen Gods make their trip by carp. Therefore, the most popular tradition is for every family to release a large carp or three small ones in lakes and rivers for them."

Kitchen busy during Tet

After the Kitchen Gods leave for heaven, people clean up their kitchen and start to store food for Tet.

Though foods are available nowadays, people still have the habit of storing some popular items like dried foods, drinks, vegetables, and meat for Tet.

"I think this habit originated during our difficult times in the past when Tet was our only holiday during the year," Phuong says.

"At that time, since everyone wanted to enjoy the holiday, markets and shops were not open, and we had to store all the necessities in advance."

Phuong also recalls that until the early 1990s people in rural areas, like in her own village, even had to store fire, as at that time, the people had few things that can generate fire like match or lighter. So after cooking, Phuong said she used to bank fire by rice husk for the next cooking session during the New Year's days.

"There were few kinds of fuel for cooking at that time, so we considered fire one of the most important and precious things.

"Every family had to ensure they had fire for Tet because asking others on New Year's Day was taboo.

"Besides, no one was willing to give away this precious thing on that day.

"Before we got the lighter, we used to bank fire by rice husk which was one of the popular fuels at that time.

"The kitchen was therefore warm all year round."

Nowadays fewer and fewer stoves can be seen in kitchens since gas stoves and electric cookers have become popular. Nevertheless, the kitchen retains its coziness for families, especially during Tet.

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