Its popularity might have declined over the years in Vietnam, but to the Vietnamese expats, mứt Tết remains one of the few links home to resurrect our new spring festival atmosphere on foreign lands. As far as I know these candied fruits are unique to the Vietnamese New Year (Tết), just like the tteokguk and the yakwa to the Korean Seolnal. They are holiday gifts to friends and family, offerings at the altars to ancestors and deities, little snacks for children, tea confections for adults, and vegan treats for those who refrain from eating meat at the year’s beginning.
Mứt can be divided into two types: wet and dry. Visit any beef jerky (khô bò) and salted plums (xí muội) stores in Vietnamese shopping malls in the Tet season, you’d see a swarm of mứt in glass jars, the wet kinds wrapped in crunchy paper and the dry kind laying bare. The two most common wet mứt are tamarind (me) and soursop (mãng cầu). The former is kept in its scrawny form, with a few rope-like fibrous strings along the fruit’s length, which is to be discarded when eating, of course.
Tamarind mứt should be amber brown, chewy, and a little more sour than sweet. Tamarind is notorious for its medicinal effect, so be careful not to consume too many sticks at once. A similar chewy wet mứt is the soursop, but it’s always milkish white, doesn’t retain the fruit’s shape, and people tend to put too much sugar in the churning process.
On the dry side you can find some twenty common kinds, spanning both fruits and non-fruits (nuts and roots): coconut, persimmon, lotus seed, tomato, ginger slice, carrot, winter melon, apple, lemon, guava, water chesnut, etc. I’m particularly fond of the crunchy, aromatic coconut ribbons which as a kid I liked to hold in my mouth for hours to melt off all but the coconut itself; but this year I refrained from buying them to try the other kinds instead.
As advertised by the lady of the store, the scarlet kumquat mứt (mứt tắc) is “good enough to die for”. I’d say its texture is fresh, its color attractive, it’s not too killingly sweet (always a plus for these candied pieces), and it’s a thousand times better than the cherry they put in your hot fudge sundae. 😉 Word of mouth is it can help with digestion and lowering body temperature, and if you drink too much alcohol perhaps pack a few of these to detoxicate (or just don’t drink!).
The sweet potato mứt (mứt khoai lang) are warm yellow inch-long sticks without powder sugar coating, as dense as a medium boiled egg yolk and as sweet as the root itself. In a blind taste test, the first bite makes you think it resembles sweet potato, then the second casts some doubt because it’s denser and more consistent than sweet potato. It has the same medicinal effect as tamarind, but to a lesser degree.
Mudpie’s favorite of the five is labelled pomelo (bưởi), but it’s most likely the pomelo skin, sun-dried and pan-sweetened and powder-sugar-coated like American candies. It feels so light almost porous, the center has a subtle citrus pinch that would marry well a cup of hot chrysanthemum tea.
In the end, there’s no telling which kind of mứt everyone would like best, but there’s always some kind somewhere to each person’s liking. When you buy mứt, ask for a sample before settling on a 1-lb pound package, you can’t judge a mứt by its cover. Usually they cost $3-5 per half pound, and each little bite-size is packed with enough sugar that it’s best, though it may appear cheap, to buy $1-2 each kind, and buy many kinds. 🙂