This Thursday, February 7, 2008 is the Lunar New Year. In Viet Nam, it is also known as Tết Nguyên Đán, Tết Ta, Tết Âm Lịch, or simply Tết and it is the most special and greatest annual celebration in our culture. It is a time for us to clean our homes in preparation for the new year, decorate our altars and pay our respects to our late ancestors, wish our friends and family a healthy, prosperous new year, buy and display flowers and kumquat trees, and make and eat copious amounts of food (with somewhat reckless abandon, in my case) to ensure good luck and prosperity for the future. For me, it is much like Thanksgiving, All Souls Day, Christmas and New Year’s all rolled into one big holiday — and plus, plus we get money (lì xì) in little red envelopes! Truly, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Tết would not be what it is without Bánh chưng. It is a savory cake normally consisting of glutinous rice, yellow mung beans and pork bundled together with banana leaves into a square. You can read a brief note about its origin here.
Despite living not far from Little Saigon in Orange County and therefore, having plenty of options for buying Bánh chưng from the shops that line Bolsa Avenue, my mother always made hers. While there are plenty of quality cakes to be found, it’s still somewhat of a gamble as you cannot be certain if a cake is good or not until you cut into it. So every year, my mom will set out to get her fresh pork belly (thịt ba chỉ) and the rest of the ingredients at the Vietnamese market. A day before assembling the cakes, she’ll prepare and season the pork belly with salt/fish sauce, pepper and shallots. Next, she’ll soak the glutinous rice and the mung beans. The following day, she’ll drain the rice and mung beans, wash the banana leaves and prepare her mise en place – which is set atop a clean bamboo mat on our ceramic floor.
With a lovely wooden square mold that my cousin Anh Vĩnh made for her, she’ll assemble her cakes and boil them in a large pot that she sets over a large gas burner outside in our yard. We’ll keep a distant watch while it boils for at least 7-8 hours, the fragrant smell of banana leaves wafting in the air, through our windows and into our home. It always seemed to take an eternity to cook the cakes and we could hardly wait to dig into a fresh, warm cake.
There are, essentially, only three main ingredients in making Bánh chưng – glutinous rice, mung bean and pork belly – which are layered and then wrapped in banana leaves. Thus, its beauty lies in both its simplicity and its taste. A notable difference in ours is the use of short-grain glutinous rice, rather than the traditional long-grain type. We simply prefer it’s softer and slightly springier texture. It is a time-consuming affair to prepare Bánh chưng, but it is an age-old tradition that Vietnamese families throughout the world partake in every year and I’m pleased to share with you our family’s version – in a manner/format that I’m borrowing from Jen.
BÁNH CHƯNG – VIETNAMESE NEW YEAR CAKE
INGREDIENTS: (makes 10 (5-inch) square cakes
- 5 lbs. (~2.25 kg) [dry weight] short-grain glutinous rice — soaked overnight and drained before assembling
- 3 lbs. (~1.5 kg) [dry weight] yellow mung beans — soaked overnight and drained before assembling
- 4 lbs. (~1.8 kg) pork belly [fat and rind intact], cut into strips that are approximately .75 inch (2cm) thick, and 4 inches (~10cm) long
- 8-10 small shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 Tbl. (45ml) fish sauce
- 1 Tbl. (15g) freshly ground black pepper
- 4 Tbl. (~60 g) salt, divided
TOOLS FOR WRAPPING:
- kitchen shears or sharp scissors
- cotton twine, cut into 40 pieces- each 20 inches (~51 cm) in lengths + more for tying at the end
- square mold [mine has an interior side that measures 5 inches (~13 cm) and a height of 2 inches(~5cm)]
- aluminum foil
- large, deep pot for boiling the cakes
- digital scale (optional)
- 2-3 packages of fresh/frozen banana leaves -
- For each cake, you’ll need to cut the banana leaves in 3 ways:
- 4 pieces measuring approximately 5in. x 12in. (13cm x 31 cm) [these will form the base]
- 8 pieces that are 10in. x 7in (25cm x 25cm) – folded- shiny side facing inside (when folded, these measure 5 inches wide and 7 inches long) [these will form the corners]
- 2 squares with 5in (13 cm) sides. [these will cover the base and top of the cake]
- The day before you assemble the cakes, cut and season the pork belly with the fish sauce, shallots and black pepper. Cover and refrigerate.
- The night before, soak the rice and mung beans (separately) in cold water.
- On the day of – prepare your wrapping station/mise en place: Defrost the banana leaves by soaking them in hot water and rinsing them thoroughly. Cut them into the aforementioned sizes. Cut the twine. Drain the rice and mung beans (always keeping them separate). Season the rice with 2.5 Tbl. (~38 g) salt – set aside. Season the mung means with the remainder 1.5 Tbl. (~22 g) salt – set aside.
- Arrange the twine underneath the wooden mold:
- Using the 5×12 pieces of banana leaf, line the inside of the mold. Place the short side of the first piece flush against the inside edge of the mold. Repeat with the other 3 pieces until you have something like the top, left photo below:
- Line the bottom with the 5 inch square, shiny side up -see top, right photo:
- Next, place the folded banana leaves standing vertically inside all four corners – with the folds right up against the corners. Repeat so that the corners are lined twice – see bottom, right photo below:
- Now, we can fill the cakes. Place a heaping 1/2 cup (~150g) of rice into the an even layer on the bottom of the cake – making sure it reaches the edges. Next, add about 1/3 cup (~75g) of mung beans in an even layer on top of the rice. Then, top the mung beans with about 2 or 3 pieces of pork as in the top, left photo below:
- Top the pork with another 1/3 cup (~75g) of mung beans and top them with a heaping 1/2 cup (~150g) of rice. Smooth the top layer of rice (add a few tsp. of rice if necessary to form an even layer of rice). Top the rice with the square leaf (shiny side down) and using the palm of your hand, press down gently to evenly compress the ingredients.
- Fold the corner leaves like you would a gift box top/bottom, starting with one side and following with the opposite side. Gently press again to make sure everything is nicely compressed (don’t press too hard, though). Once the corner leaves are folded flat, gently, but firmly fold in and overlap the 4 outside, base leaves. You should have a completely enclosed cake.
- Gently lift the wooden mold up and away from the cake – top, right photo:
- Bring opposite ends of the strings to tie the cake (not too tight; they should not make indentations on the cake) – bottom, right photo:
- To ensure a better seal, wrap the entire cake in aluminum foil. When finished, flip the cake, turn it 90° and repeat with another layer of foil. Loosely tie with twine. Repeat with the rest of the cakes.
- Take all the banana leaf scraps and toss them into the bottom of the pot. This is thought to help prevent the bottom cakes from getting scorched.
- Tie two or three cakes together and stack them (standing up) inside your pan. Place a large, heavy plate or a shallow pan on top of the cakes (this is to weigh them down, as they will float at the beginning). Add enough water to fully cover all the cakes and set the pot on medium heat (uncovered) until it begins to boil. Gently boil for approximately 8 hours. You may need to replenish the pot with additional boiling water from time to time. Edit: I’ve been told by a certain mother that I over-crowded the cakes inside the pan a bit (see below). They should cook standing up but not squeezed in so tight – as the rice needs room to expand.
- At at the half-way point (after 4 hours of boiling) – carefully take the cakes out and rotate them so that all the sides cook evenly.
- When the cakes have finished cooking, gently and carefully remove them from the pot. Line them up next to each other (large, flat side down) and cover with a large cutting board or cookie sheet. Weigh them down by placing a heavy pot or several large food cans.
- Once cooled, remove the foil and twine and wipe down all the sides of the cake with a clean rag/dish towel – do this with all the cakes. At this point, you can fully unwrap and enjoy them. Peel and pull back the banana leaves and cut the cake with thin wire or unscented dental floss (as you would a cheesecake, for example).
- With the rest, cover with plastic wrap. We usually wrap them in plastic and tie them with red ribbon to gift to others and for placing on our altar. The cakes will keep refrigerated for about a week. They can also be frozen. Then, when you want to eat them, defrost and steam for about 20-30 minutes.
- These are often enjoyed with pickled baby leeks/spring onion bulbs/shallots (củ kiệu) or with pungent daikon and carrot pickles (dưa món). You can also cut them into 3/4 inch (2cm) thick slices and pan-fry them until golden for a crispy treat.