A couple of weekends ago while I was still fuzzy from having just finished the pho cookbook manuscript, I received an urgent email from Barbara in Florida. She was embarking on a Vietnamese cooking adventure and needed help. Barbara was about to make banh chung, square shaped sticky rice cakes that are a must-have food for Vietnamese Tet Lunar New Year.
The cakes require just a handful of ingredients but they come together in an ingenious fashion to not just look beautiful (think a low square box wrapped in banana and bamboo leaves) but also taste magnificent (fatty pork, buttery mung beans, and sticky rice flavored by the chlorophyll brightness of the leaves). Barbara is not Vietnamese (you don’t have to be Viet too cook Viet food well), and she had questions. I found moments of clarity to give her pointers. Barbara had never made or tasted banh chung before but, she was obviously a curious, careful cook.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation that spanned four (4!) days; the timing is all Pacific Standard Time so it makes sense. I learned a lot from Barbara and hope you do too.
Jan 22, 2016, at 10:09 PM, Barbara:
I am going to attempt to make these wonderful looking Rice Cakes. I did find a Vietnamese grocery store today. I have the sticky rice, the mung beans, the pork leg, banana leaves (2 pkg. frozen) fish sauce. I do not, however have the dried bamboo leaves. Are they essential to making the rice cakes? Can I use banana leaves instead?
My husband made me a mold out of wood to your exact measurements.
I have my rice and mung beans soaking right now so when I get up tomorrow I can start to make the rice cakes. I actually opened both packages of the banana leaves & soaked them in a roasting pan....I then read the recipe again and saw that it was bamboo leaves I should have been soaking...so, I just took the banana leaves out of the water, dried them off and layered them, flat with paper towels between them. I think they will be okay. I do have some bamboo trees growing in my yard. I could gather some leaves from them....can I use fresh bamboo leaves? Or should I use the banana leaves in place of the bamboo leaves to line the mold? Please advise. Thank you so much. I am very excited to make these wonderful sticky rice cakes.
Jan 23, 2016, at 11:09 AM, Andrea: Amazing and exciting. You are about to make them so go ahead and try without the bamboo. There is a certain architectural reason why the bamboo is there. The leaf's spine creates clean lines for the box shape. I have never made them without the bamboo. You should be okay. Ask your handy husband to take a look with you. Aim to create a square-ish box. The security blanket is the foil. The recipe has detailed instructions but this may help too: How to Make Banh Chung (photo tutorial)
Jan 23, 2016, at 12:24 PM, Barbara: Me again..I notice one recipe I saw for a banh chung uses yellow onion, thinly sliced, cooked in oil til caramelized and then added to mashed mung beans with salt. Ever hear of this? and one more question....when the square cakes are wrapped in banana leaves, the heavy duty tin foil is the last layer? They get cooked with foil on? Thanks.
Jan 23, 2016, at 6:56 PM, Andrea: I suppose they are nearly done boiling? The onion in the filling is not necessary. Some people say it leads to early spoilage -- but that was before refrigeration. It's a fussy thing to do. You have good ingredients and that is the magic of Banh Chung.
Yes on the foil as the last layer. As you see in the book photo, the foil is there. Very exciting!
Jan 23, 2016, at 7:22 PM, Barbara: No Andrea...didn't get to assemble my rice cakes yet....tomorrow morning for sure! The day got away from me....everything is ready...thanks for info about onions & tin foil. I like your recipe. So much fun!
Jan 23, 2016, at 7:29 PM, Andrea: Fabulous! Look forward to hearing your progress. Shame on the Viet market for not having bamboo leaves. They usually keep it in a weird place, near the dried lotus leaves. Have fun!
Jan 23, 2016, at 9:08 PM, Barbara: Yay! The store is open tomorrow. I will go. I am sure they have the bamboo leaves. Do the bamboo leaves have to be submerged in the water overnight? And will the drained, salted rice be okay? I WILL get these made! Want to do it right!
Jan 23, 2016, at 9:17 PM, Andrea: If you have time! Soak the bamboo leaves in just boiled water for a couple hours--you want them to soften so you can bend them to manipulate.
Jan 23, 2016, at 9:20 PM, Barbara: Okay. That will work. And the rice will be okay?
Jan 23, 2016, at 11:06 PM, Andrea: I think so. As long as the rice is drained, just chill it.
Jan 24, 2016, at 3:55 PM, Barbara:
Hi Andrea, here is an update....went to Vietnamese grocery store today in Sarasota....around 30 minutes away from here. Anyway, got the bamboo leaves!...it's a huge package! Took out only 18 ( I know I only need 16). Good to have a few extras just in case....they are soaking in my large roasting pan. Bought another pkg. of frozen banana leaves too. The first ones I defrosted are all dried and curled up right now, so don't know if they are useable. I will soak bamboo leaves overnight...everything else is in the fridge. Tomorrow morning I will get started. I will have the entire day to devote to just the sticky rice cakes. Next time I write to you they will be boiling! Thank you again so much for your support and help.
By the way, you have some other wonderful recipes I am going to try in this fabulous cookbook....this is one serious, beautiful book. I am reading it now. Truly a labor of love for you! I am enjoying all the personal stories you write about...just love this book! You are an inspiration!
Jan 24, 2016 8:51 PM, Andrea: Yay! You can keep those leaves for years. Use them for decor if not for food.
Mon, Jan 25, 2016, 4:32 PM, Barbara:
Hi Andrea - I had to call in the big guns....my Vietnamese friend Fumi. I actually made two rice cakes by myself from start to finish....then Fumi made two. I think I had it figured out by the second one. I was very exact in everything I did...Fumi, on the other hand, was not as exact....but oh well, they are boiling now and will be finished later tonight. I measured and cut all my leaves. I put in the filling measuring exactly 1 cup of rice, 1/2 cup mung beans, the meat, more mung beans & finally rice. Fumi didn't measure....hers were wrapped in lots of banana leaves ....I was sort of sorry I asked her to help me, because by my second rice cake I think I had it down. But this morning I was having a lot of difficulty and my confidence level was down. The tricky part for me was the bamboo leaves....but I think I figured it out. Actually, I did learn some things from Fumi. She is coming back tomorrow and us going to show me how to fry one of the rice cakes and what to do with the leftover rice. Fumi came here from Viet Nam with her family....mom, dad, two sisters and a brother. I think South Viet Nam. Fumi opened up a total of 3 restaurants over the years here...all successful! Two are running now....her Sister Chi & her husband run one and her brother, Ben & his wife, the other. Fumi is married to a Japanese man, Joe. Both restaurants have Japanese cuisine, sushi, miso soup, etc. ...not really Vietnamese food. Anyway, I was very thankful for her help, even though she did it her own way. Fumi is a great cook and business woman and a good friend. I didn't weigh the cakes down in the boiling water. Fumi said to just keep turning them. We'll see how they turn out! The end result is what counts. I actually am a pretty good cook. I should have had more confidence in myself! It was nice to re-connect with my friend.
Thank you again.
Tuesday, Jan 25, 10:28 AM, Barbara:
Good morning Andrea,
Couldn't wait to unwrap my rice cakes this morning....interesting, I think mine turned out better than Fumi's....although I am sure they all will taste good.....it was harder to unwrap Fumi's....mostly because they were a hodge podge of banana leaves all going which way....mine (following your recipe) were easy to open. Also I love that the rice turned a light green color from the bamboo & banana leaves...not to mention they flavored the rice in such a delicious, subtle way.
So, I undid one of mine.....cut it the way you said. I am a clay artist and I happened to have the perfect tool for cutting through the sticky rice cake....it's what I use to slice off clay.....a thin metal wire with two handles at each end. I, of course washed it well first...it worked perfectly! I fried the pieces of rice cake in grape seed oil. The second batch turned out better than the first.....I put a piece of parchment paper on top, so I could flatten the cakes without them sticking to my spatula....worked well!
After frying them, I sprinkled them with a little sugar. My husband just took some with him to work.
I LOVE the way they turned out! So creamy, and crunchy at the same time. The pork gave it such a nice flavor. When I marinated the pork in the fish sauce, I used 1/2 the amount of black pepper you used. Not a big fan of black pepper. I think it was the perfect amount for my taste buds. I am so pleased....love these special holiday Rice Cakes. Thank you so much!
Jan 26, 2016, at 11:13 AM, Andrea: I had a feeling that yours would be better than Fumi's. She was not disciplined in placing her banana leaves as you pointed out. You are Banh Chung The Master! So thrilled for you. High-fives!
With frying the cakes, here's a little guidance on how to fry banh chung sticky rice cake. I like your method though, because they make it easier to serve.
So what inspired you to tackle this recipe? I am so touched and delight in the play-by-play. Congrats!!!!
Tue, Jan 26, 2016, 6:04 PM, Barbara:
In answer to your question.....what inspired me? Someone on Facebook posted a photo of the fried sticky rice pancake....and it looked so delicious! I wanted to make it ....who knew it was such a long complicated process....and when I asked the person on line how to make it, she referred me to your book, "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen", even stating the page number the recipe was on. I went to Amazon and found a used copy of your book....it's in good condition and I love the book.
Boy! Your Mom is certainly a great cook. So lucky for you that you have her orange recipe note book and got to grow up watching her prepare meals! My Mom was a wonderful baker....she left behind a lot of her recipes, that I cherish! I learned so much from my mom about cooking by just being there and watching her. I am so grateful! There is nothing better than being able to pass down family recipes from one generation to the next....and in your case, to the world!
Again, thank you, Andrea for all your input & help with the Banh Chung adventure... I am most appreciative.
Because banh chung is often made in large batches to be eaten over the course of days as people celebrated Tet, it used to be a community and family activity. A sidebar story in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen recounts my mom’s banh chung experiences during her childhood in Vietnam. I make small batches of four and give them away to friends like my stylist Karen Shinto. (I also squirrel them away in the freezer to thaw and eat during the year. Given banh chung’s wrapping of multiple layers, they are built for long-term storing.)
Virtually accompanying Barbara on her banh chung adventure was a hoot. The recipe worked as written and Barbara also got into the spirit of the recipe. She invited a friend to come and help (banh chung is a group activity!). She fried the banh chung. She mastered the recipe big time.
I slave over writing recipe instructions to make sure that they’re clear, precise, empowering, and most importantly, that they work. Incredible validation from many angles. Thank you Barbara and Barbara's friend for inspiring her!
When is Tet this year? February 8 when the Year of the Monkey commences. Tet is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. We call it Tet whereas the Chinese call it the Spring Festival.