Tomorrow is the first day of the Lunar New Year and yesterday I felt a bit lacking about doing my culinary due diligence for this most important Vietnamese holiday. We can't just eat candied lotus seeds all day long! Tet Nguyen Dan, as it’s known in Vietnamese, is a time for rest and renewal. The foods eaten during Tet are quite simple and homey fare: Sweet and savory kho dishes cooked in caramel sauce, pickles, candied sweetmeats, and most importantly, sticky rice cakes called banh chung and banh tet. You make the food in advance so that on New Year Day, you don't have to slave away in the kitchen.
Banh chung is square like a small adobe brick and banh tet is cylindrical like a slender can of coffee. Both feature sticky rice, mung beans, and fatty pork. The difference is in their shape. They are wrapped in banana leaves or la dong if you’re in Vietnam. The leaves impart a wonderful pale green color and tea-like flavor to the rice. You may have seen them at Vietnamese delis, bakeries, and markets.
There are only a handful of ingredients that go into making the cakes and they are absolutely delicious. Banh chung (let’s just call them that for ease) are made year around but you have to have them on the first day of the year. I was feeling beat his past week from work but yesterday felt like I had to make banh chung. It could have been out of guilt, as on my last trip to the Chinese market, the Vietnamese cashier said, “Sister, you’ll be back soon to buy ingredients to make banh chung, right? Everyone’s been buying tons of rice, beans and pork!”
Uh… I had picked up a package of frozen banana leaves just in case I could squeeze banh chung into my schedule. On Friday morning, I woke up with a slight hangover from the celebratory end-of-the-shoot martinis the night before and figured that I had neither energy nor time to make banh chung. By Saturday morning, I started feeling like heel. I’m not one to buy banh chung as my family has always made our own. Plus, for the past 5 years, I’d been doing it myself. I’d call my mom on Monday to wish her “Chuc mung nam moi!” (Happy New Year!) and she’d say, “How many banh chung did you wrap? I made 16 [or some other gargantuan number].” I’d have to sheepishly respond zilch.
I had a bag of leftover steamed ground mung beans from the photo shoot and thought I had a lead start. However, as soon as I got the bag from the fridge, my husband pointed out two dark black spots – mold. Cooked mung beans go bad after about 5 days of refrigeration. I was dejected but Rory said, “Suck it up, soak some beans and cook them. If you don’t use them for banh chung, you can freeze the beans. You always use those beans for other Viet dishes.” Right. The beans got soaked, steamed, and ground to a fluffy texture in the processor.
Then we took our daily walk to buy groceries for dinner and I got a big, extra fatty pork shoulder steak at the market. “If I don’t make banh chung, we’ll grill the pork,” I told Rory. When we got home, I was still ambivalent on whether or not to proceed, but decided to defrost the banana leaves, just in case. Rory didn’t say a single thing. After dinner, I rifled through my pantry for dried bamboo leaves (these last forever and 1 package is enough for years!) and selected 16 nice ones and soaked them in water. Then I nearly got into trouble trying to find the sticky rice.
As a food professional, I have about a dozen kinds of rice on hand. Seriously. I never worried about being out of rice but last night, the pantry (really a hall closet) seemed to be missing long-grain sticky rice. What kind of a Viet cook was I? Surely, I must have some way back in the closet. After cleaning and reorganizing the pantry, I found 5 1/4 cups — just enough rice for making my annual batch of four banh chung. It was as if the Kitchen God was saying that I had to make the cakes.
Late last night, I prepped the ingredients, trimming the banana leaves, cutting the pork into pieces the size of a deck of cards, and putting the rice to soak in a big red (a lucky color) bowl. This morning, I woke up eager to assemble the cakes. A cup of strong coffee with condensed milk things along too.
With the ingredients prepped, the banh chung came together quickly. As with every year, I marvel at the Vietnamese culinary genius that lies at the heart of the cakes. I use a homemade wooden mold with the bamboo leaves to form the sharp square corners and straight edges. Three layers of banana leaves are use to perfume and encase the ingredients. Aluminum foil keeps it all together nicely.
When I was done, I wished I had more to make as I was fully in the Tet cooking spirit. Vietnamese people are known to make them by the dozen to gift their family and friends. I’m glad the market cashier, my husband, my mother, and the specter of the Kitchen God egged me on. Making banh chung is a culinary ritual worth keeping.
Right now the cakes are undergoing their six hour boil. I think I’ll put some decorations out and tidy up the house. Tomorrow is the New Year!
More details on banh chung and banh tet (what to eat with them, how to wrap the cakes)