|Banh Chung: Sticky New Year|
Words and photos by Todd Michael
As the biggest holiday of the year, Tet has its share of traditions, rituals, and delicacies. High on the list is banh chung, the green sticky rice cake, which has been immortalized in a popular Vietnamese poem:
Rich meats, salty onions, red poems
Times change, however. Lucky neu trees have been replaced by kumquat trees, pink peach branches (in the north), and yellow apricot branches (in the south); firecrackers were banned in the 1990s. Fortunately, the legacy of banh chung lives on.
“I have a really big extended family back in Hai Duong Province, so we get together and make a hundred banh chung every year,” explained Nghia, a high school boy, to my surprise. “It takes four days from start to finish.”
“It has a lot of protein and vitamins,” he continued, warming to the subject. “But Vietnamese don’t eat it very often because we say the rice makes us ‘hot’. So we only eat it on special occasions like Tet or the middle of the year.”
According to local folklore, the banh chung tradition dates back to the reign of the legendary Hung kings 4000 years ago. In the tale, poor prince Lang Lieu succeeds his father to the throne through a competition with his richer brothers to create the best dish to place on the altar. Well, why not? Using the simplest ingredients of sticky rice, mung beans, pork and pork fat, all painstakingly wrapped up in leaves with the finesse of a master chef, his banh chung represents the earth. As a complement to banh giay (representing the sky), the cake is placed on family altars up and down the country.
Generally, northern cakes are square, while southerners prefer a tubular banh tet; I had the unexpected privilege of seeing the world’s longest banh tet on Nha Trang’s beachfront promenade a few years back. And although I’ve had my share of banh chung, this was first year I have made them all by myself. Or at least until my Vietnamese friends had to come rescue me.
“How many banh chung did you have? How many chickens did you have? That’s what we always asked our neighbors or relatives around Tet after the war,” recalled my land lady, Oanh, as she helped me in the kitchen cramped with Honda motorbikes. “We were so poor during subsidy times before doi moi (the renovation period), so Tet was really special back then.”
“We’d bring our family’s banh chung down the road, where all the families had them cooked,” explained her niece, Lan Anh. “Each family used a different colored string to identify theirs afterwards. They put them in big 55-gallon oil barrels and cooked them for 12 hours down by the local padoga. Then when they were ready, we kids were so excited to bring them home to open them.”
Today in the capital, however, double-income families are finding it harder and harder to find the time and patience to spend hours cautiously steaming the sticky rice cakes, so the temptation to buy the blocky green cakes is hard to resist.
As I learned, there are five main steps in the assembly line.
1. Prepare the leaves. This sounds simple enough, but not all leaves are equal; a true banh chung requires la dong leaves, which create the traditional green coloring. To speed up the process nowadays, Vietnamese manufacturers have reportedly started adding chemicals or batteries (yikes!) to create this “natural” green tint.
2. Put in the cake’s ingredients. This varies with each family’s secret recipe, but typically sticky rice (gao), fatty pork, mashed mung beans, salt, and pepper, are placed inside the leaves.
3. Wrap up the cake. Once again, this seems straight forward enough, but it requires some skill to create the correct square shape. Novice cake makers (me, for example) without “green thumbs” may be subjected to ridicule and catcalls for their ugly cakes.
4. After sticking 8-9 cakes in a large pot, the cakes are slowly boiled. In the past, this could last for days over a wood fire, but today this has been streamlined to two or three hours over a gas burner.
5. Let them eat cake! For many Vietnamese, this is the most enjoyable part of the process, but foreigners tend to find the sticky rice cakes, well, a bit too sticky. American author Lady Borton once compared banh chung to “congealed oatmeal” or porridge. To be honest, it took me several years to develop a palate for them, but they can be fatty and filling over the cold winters of Hanoi.
Like a Christmas fruitcake or German stollen, banh chung is simply part of the holiday. Whether freshly steamed, cold, or even fried, the sticky green cake seems here to stay, in all its green, glutinous glory. Enjoy!
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