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This Tết, I'm Finally Learning Our Family Recipe for Candied Coconut 'Flowers'

Tết is the perfect occasion of the year to go ham on the sugar.

Forget juices, forget smoothies, forget yogurt bowls — if you love fruits, these healthy renditions do not have a place during Tết. Instead, every lunar new year, your favorite fruits will magically transform into a candied version of themselves in the form of mứt. Pineapple, soursop, kumquat, or even cherry tomato, you name it, there’s probably a candied version of it.

Mứt dừa is my family specialty. My mom has perfected it into an art and finally passed the recipe down to me this year. For the average Joe, any freshly scraped coconut meat can be turned into pearly white strips of unctuous mứt dừa, but not just any coconut meat can cut it in my household, as only young coconuts have the ideal tenderness and moisture content to produce the best mứt dừa in her eyes.

The “original” version without added flavors.

My mom has a guy or lady for everything, so making mứt dừa often begins with a quick reminder to her coconut guy to retain young coconuts after their juice has been drained and sold. She’s been making mứt dừa using his coconuts for over a decade, earning for herself a loyalty discount and first dibs on the best coconut meat this side of Saigon has to offer.

Candying fruits for Tết, as I’ve discovered, is most labor-intensive during the prep stage, when every piece of coconut meat is cleaned and sliced into strips; the cooking phase can be boiled down, quite literally, to waiting for sugar crystals to form. Coconut strips are mixed with sugar and any additional flavor or color in juice form, then brought to a boil before the heat is lowered to allow for crystallization.

Pandan and beetroot juices provide colorful shades.

Pandan is always a crowd favorite in our family. Its uniquely sweet and vegetal aroma infuses well into mứt dừa, and the deep emerald color mellows out into an elegant shade of green evoking that of a warm matcha latte. This year, we decided to experiment with other natural colorants like beetroot and turmeric to unexpectedly vibrant results, but questionable tastes.

While the candied coconut strips are fresh off the stove and pliable, my mom folds them into flowers.

The art of making candied coconut might seem mundane, but it is the neat bow tying together many threads of Vietnamese culture, something that I only noticed this year after actually immersing myself in this family tradition. Every ingredient, from palm sugar, and coconut to pandan, originates from our water, our air, our soil, coming together into a celebration of native herbs and fruits. A sense of community permeates many Tết culinary traditions. The making of mứt dừa encourages the whole family to get together: the dad climbs up tall trees to pick fresh coconuts while the siblings help out with slicing the flesh into strips. Ultimately, it’s also unheard of to make a single portion of mứt dừa, for one of the delights of making New Year treats is giving them away to relatives and neighbors.

Ready to be feasted on in between bầu cua cá cọp matches.

I’ve always been wary of Tết’s eclectic offerings of cloyingly sweet treats, but I can’t say no to mứt dừa. Its conceptualization somehow brings together my favorite tropical flavors in the best package possible — young coconut and pandan — and, as it’s always homemade at the Phạms, I don’t have the heart to say no to such labor of love.

Vignette is a series of tiny essays from our writers, where we reflect, observe, and wax poetic about the tiny things in life.

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