I was a on the fence about making Vietnamese sticky rice cakes for Tet this year. Called banh chung, they are a must-have for the Lunar New Year which falls on Thursday, February 19. Vietnamese banh chung are a cousin to Chinese zongzi (joong in Cantonese) in that they are made of sticky rice, pork and mung beans and wrapped leaves. In Vietnam, they’re wrapped in green leaves called la dong. In the States, most people use banana leaves. I also use bamboo leaves. Think of banh chung as a gigantic tamale or dumpling.
Banh chung are made with just a handful of ingredients and taste absolutely delicious – rich from the pork and mung beans and fragrant from the leaves. Many Vietnamese people buy banh chung these days but my family has always made ours. It’s part of the crafter in us.
I could have called my mom and had her mail me one but I was embarrassed to do so. She’d taught me how to make them, for goodness sakes! I’d seen banh chung for sale at the Chinese market when I was shopping for Lunar New Year stuff. They were unmarked, perhaps made in mass quantities in someone’s home kitchen. The only label was a price. No listing of ingredients, no provenance, no expiration date. That gave me a funny feeling at the store and even more so when I looked at the photo after I posted it on VWK last week.
Tet is about home cooking. Was I going to be a total sheep or tackle the new year in a ram tough way? (More about the upcoming Year of the Sheep/Goat here.) I decided to take the better part of last Friday to make banh chung. Life is too short to give up on your cultural traditions. Plus, my husband and I adore banh chung. I wasn’t going to outsource it. I was going to do it the old fashioned way.
I look at my recipe in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (pages 261 to 264) and gathered the ingredients – frozen banana leaves, dried bamboo leaves, sticky rice, mung beans, pork, salt, pepper and fish sauce. That is it. My tools included: scissors, a ruler, foil, string and a wood mold that my friend Mike built for me over 10 years ago. The mold makes banh chung that are not too big or too small. Four servings each.
Several people on Facebook and Instagram expressed that they longed for their mom’s banh chung, or how much they missed its freshness. Tet is a sentimental holiday for Vietnamese people. It’s full of nostalgia. I hope that these photos will encourage people to make their own.
The photos are meant to go along with the recipe in my cookbook because that’s the recipe I follow.
Midway through the cooking, I realized that Viet cooks typically serve charcuterie with banh chung – the silky sausages that you’d find in banh mi, because you have a pot of water going for a long time so make the most of it. Given that, I quickly made batches of Vietnamese silky sausage and beef and dill sausages (gio lua and gio bo) from recipes on pages 42 and 45 of The Banh Mi Handbook. That’s what you see bobbing in the pot.
After weighting, the banh chung were done and ready to eat. I cut it into wedges and had it with sugar. More was panfried into a pancake.
Banh chung may seem tricky to wrap but after you do it once, you’ll experience not only old school Vietnamese cooking but also the genius of how it comes together. You make a box from bamboo and banana leaves. How cool is that?! If you’re crafty and like origami or sewing, even carpentry, this is the perfect project for you.
And, I can’t tell you how giddy I was to open one up and eat it! It's like that every time. How could I have wavered on making them this year? I hope you'll make banh chung sooner than later.
P.S. My publisher informed me that the third and fourth printings of The Banh Mi Handbook arrived in the U.S. last Monday — my birthday! They cleared customs and will be at the Random House warehouse on Feb. 17. Back orders will be filled very soon. Hooray!