Bánh Chưng – Vietnamese New Year Cake

 

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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]

 

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STEPS:

  • 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:
  •  

banh_chung4a.jpg

     

  • 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:

 

banh_chung3.jpg

 

  • 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:

 

banh_chung5.jpg

 

  • 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.

 

banh_chung6.jpg

 

  • 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. 

     

    banh_chung7a.jpg

       

    • 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.

     

    banh_chung8.jpg

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    Bon appétit!

     

     

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    17 Responses to “Bánh Chưng – Vietnamese New Year Cake”

    1. Jen Says:

      You are my hero!!! You are a ROCKSTAR! My grandma makes something similar, but they are wrapped in a sort of funky double-ended triangle shape (Chinese zong-tse). We use lotus leaves (I think it’s lotus – see how lame I am!?) and glutinous rice and fill with either sweet or savory fillings. Mmmm. Good times! I love your step by step and of course, yours are far more beautiful than anything I’ve ever eaten. Forget about buying a house, you and Pierre can come live in our guest floor :) Hope your New Year’s preps are going well. I can only imagine what a bash you’re preparing!

    2. Chuck Says:

      This is fantastic! I love banh chung. I haven’t found a good place to buy banh trung in the Bay Area yet. When I do see it, I’m reluctant to buy it because I don’t know how long it’s been sitting on the counter. It’s funny, my actual banh chung supplier is in Orlando where my parents live. My folks order them from a woman, who makes them out of her house. So, when I visit my parents, I’m always lugging back banh chung from Orlando to San Francisco.

      I have never tried to make it, but now with your Jen-style instructions, I think I’ll have to give it a try one of these days. Thanks!

    3. White On Rice Couple Says:

      Holy moly, Holy B. ! Great instructions, hopefully it will get people to make their own banh chung. It’s really worth the effort because not only is it cheaper, it’s fresher too. Like Chuck brought up, ya never know how old those banh chung have been on the counter. When I’m in a bind and end up buying it, I’m taking a $12 chance . Ouch !!

    4. holybasil Says:

      Jen – do you know what a loud snorer Pierre is??? :) No, I’m kidding. You know, I’m not sure, but I think I remember seeing Ming Tsai’s mother make the triangular cakes you mention. And of course, she did it all free-hand, with no frame/mold. My friend Bing told me about the ones she’s had – with chestnut/lotus seed fillings, red bead filling… it all sounds lovely. You know, if we were neighbors, I would probably borrow much more than a cup of sugar – like half of your amazing dishes!
      Chuck – This was my first time to make these cakes completely on my own and I’m rather pleased with the look and taste of them. I also used to bring these back after a visit back home. I’d freeze them and they reheated quite nicely. It’s not too late to make your own for this New Year! If you do, let me know how yours turn out.
      WhiteonRice – You and Chuck are right – ya never know how long they’ve been sitting on that counter…besides, I’m hoping that I’ve banked some serious good karma for the time (and patience) I’ve spent making these :)

    5. Warda Says:

      Salut Christine!
      All I can say is Waouuuuu!!! Eventhough I don’t eat pork, that is one gorgeous cake. From the banana leaves to the meaning of it and all the cooking process. (Now I understand why you had this Huge pan in your kitchen)
      I love it! And I especially love learning how you celebrate your new year. Your family is going to be so proud of you! Lucky them!

    6. holybasil Says:

      Salut Warda,
      Ah merci! And yes, the huge pot does come in handy even though it takes up half of kitchen! I’ll let you know what my mother thinks of my cakes :)

    7. Michnguyen Says:

      Woww. Your bánh chưng look soooooo good. I just made some bánh tét over the weekend. No Bánh chưng, maybe we could trade. :))

    8. holybasil Says:

      Mich- I’d be happy to give you a bánh chưng – where are you at? But you’ll have to tell me how to shape bánh tét!

    9. mycookinghut Says:

      We have similar called ZongZi in triangle shape like Jen mentioned. My mom uses Bamboo leaves to wrap, which I regard ‘highly technical’. However, it’s traditionally eaten during Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu).
      I will share the Chinese BÁNH CHƯNG with you one day!

    10. Anh Says:

      HB, Cung chúc tân xuân! Chúc bạn và gia đình một năm mới vui vẻ và tràn ngập niềm vui! :)

    11. Anh Says:

      Oh HB, I forgot. The leftover bánh chưng can be pan-fried and eaten with hành muối chua (my fav breaky I swear!). And have you ever eaten bánh chưng with cá kho? I learn it from a Hanoian family and got hooked ever since. :D

    12. holybasil Says:

      Mycookinghut – Oh, that would be awesome – I’d love to learn how to shape those triangle cakes! When is Duan Wu? I can’t wait!

      Anh – bánh chưng with cá kho? No, I’ve never tried it but it sounds interesting…I might try that soon.

      Chúc Anh một năm mới rất vui, phát tài và mong năm nay sẻ mang nhiều may mắn cho Anh và nguyên gia đình :)

    13. Passionate Eater Says:

      This is seriously the best food blog post EVER! Do you like to add peanuts (without the skins) and black beans in your’s too?

    14. Mai-Huong Says:

      Oh wow! We make them by hand too, (By “we,” I mean mainly my mother…) but I’ve never seen a mold for banh chung! No wonder yours look so neat and perfect. (Jealous, jealous…)

    15. mr SEO HWANG HYUN Says:

      we are waiting to your reply.
      Best Regards

    16. anh chuột em gà Says:

      bạn ơi cho hỏi bánh chưng gói bằng giấy bạc ăn có độc không?

    17. Nick Says:

      Christine, I enjoyed reading about the history and was fascinated by your step by step descriptions and photos. What a patient, loving process … and I can’t wait to dig in! Have no ideas what to serve with it! Maybe pickles and chacuterie?! (I won’t even hazard a guess where I can get the daikon and carrot pickles)!


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