If you're unfamiliar with Tet sticky rice cakes (banh chung and banh tet), the must-have food for Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration, chances are you may be asking, "Is it an adobe brick or doorstop wrapped in banana leaf?" At Viet delis, bakeries and grocery stores, you'll find them this week and next displayed on tables. The weighty cakes will be wrapped in plastic with red or gold ribbon tied around them to make them look extra festive for this most important holiday.
Banh chung are the square ones, and banh tet are the cylindrical ones. They are the same, but the major difference lies in their shape. Northern Viet people are partial to the square banh chung whereas central and southern people prefer the round banh tet. Banh chung is the name that most people use. My family prepared and ate banh chung because my mother hails from a town named Hai Duong, which is right outside of Hanoi (in the northern region).
Other than the shape variation, banh chung are traditionally wrapped in the large green leaves called la dong (Phrynium placentarium, which is related to arrowroot). Banh tet are wrapped in banana leaves. Banana leaves impart a wonderful tea-like aroma and flavor to the rice and since la dong aren't available abroad, Viet people living overseas use banana leaves to wrap banh chung and banh tet. Regardless, the cakes are boiled for 6 to 8 hours, depending on size.
Getting the cakes to look like nice squares and cylinders requires finesse. To appreciate the wrapping process and get a few tips, check these out:
- Video on how to wrap banh chung the old-fashioned way -- without a mold, using la dong (rush/arrowroot leaves) tied with strips of reed and cooked over coals. Note how they've lightly tinted the rice pale green with food coloring, something that's definitely not old-school but a modern, widespread practice in Vietnam.
- Download step-by-step photos of how to wrap banh_chung_in a wooden mold . The mold is my preferred method because it's much easier to get the square shape, a hallmark of the sticky rice cakes. The photos correspond to my detailed recipe for banh chung in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2006).
What's inside the wrapping? The leaves encase sticky rice, in the center of which there's buttery mung bean and opalescent bits of pork and pork fat. The filling is simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and a touch of fish sauce. It's filling food that can be made in advance and sit around for days, which makes it great for Tet, when you're suppose to have fun, not slave in the kitchen. The leaves impart a wonderful tea-like quality to the rice. When you eat a fresh hot, one, the rice is soft and chewy sweet. The beans are plush and rich and the pork contributes a wonderful savoriness.
How to eat Tet sticky rice cakes and what to serve them with? Square banh chung are cut into wedges (use unflavored dental floss) so each portion has a fair share of rice, mung bean and pork. Round banh tet are cut into thick slices. It's often the case that the cake is eaten with some sugar, which sounds weird but is a great combination of flavors. Banh chung and banh tet may also be fried to a delicious chewy crispness too. The photo above is of a market vendor on Phu Quoc island frying banh tet; here's a fair amount of food coloring in her rice.
Viet people typically serve the cakes with tangy, sweet pungent pickled shallots, garlicky pickled daikon, and various kinds of Vietnamese charcuterie -- silky sausages and head cheese. Pigs were often slaughtered for Tet so people use some of the meat and offal for charcuterie, which keeps around. There's often a long-simmered dish too in which pork or beef is cooked in caramel sauce.
If you don't make them buy them, like many Vietnamese living abroad do these days. Check Viet markets and delis, or Chinese markets where there's a large Viet clientele. The cakes sit out at room temperature. Poke them to make sure they're fresh.