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.