Chuc mung nam moi! Happy New Year!
Today is Tet, the Lunar New Year as it is known in Vietnam, and the Year of the Dragon starts in the lunar calendar. And since I work with several Vietnamese people that love to feed me treats, I was provided with the traditional banh chung or steamed cake that is an integral part of the Vietnamese New Year family altar.
Banh chung stems from an old legend that tells that King Hung, many thousand years ago, felt himself getting farther from the sky and closer to the earth and decided to chose his heir from his twenty-two sons by challenging them to create a delicacy for him that would honor their ancestors and show their qualities in time for Tet, the lunar New Year. His sons traveled everywhere to find rare specialties and bring them to their father, only Prince Lieu, the eighteenth son, who has lost his mother at a young age, stayed at home. A goddess appeared to the Prince in his dreams and spoke to him about two cakes, banh chung and banh day. Banh chung was to represent the earth, to which all men must return, and therefore was to be wrapped in green banana leaves and be a square, as the world was. Within the rice should be meat and beans to represent all creatures of the earth. Banh day was to represent the sky from which men came, and therefore be round and long, just as the sky was shaped, and of pure white rice. When Lieu awoke, he created both cakes and on Tet, offered them to his father along with the delicacies from far and wide that his brothers had brought home. King Hung was pleased with the flavor and the symbolism of the cakes prepared from such simple ingredients, and awarded the throne to Prince Lieu. Since then, banh chung has been an integral part of the Vietnamese New Year and is made each year in a perfect square from glutinous rice filled with pork and mung beans, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled for a long time.
I’ll share the recipe for this gorgeous rich, sticky and savory treat as my co-worker makes it with you. It’s very labor intensive, and some of the ingredients may not be easy to come by unless you have a good Asian market nearby, but it’s well worth the effort. A gorgeous treat!
- 200g glutinous rice
- 150g pork, shoulder or loin
- 50g dried mung beans
- 1.5 tbsp Vietnamese fish sauce
- 1.5 tbsp oil
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp salt
- strong twine
- 2 large banana leaves
- 4 bamboo leaves
- aluminum foil
- frame or mold
1. Soak the rice covered in plenty of cold water overnight. This will lead to a doubling in volume, so make sure you have a large bowl. Also soak the mung beans overnight in cold water. Soak the bamboo leaves in water overnight as well.
2. Drain rice, add salt and mix well, set aside. Drain bamboo leaves and pat dry.
3. Drain mung beans, set aside.
4. Cut the pork into small pieces, mix with black pepper and fish sauce and let marinate for one hour minimum before heating the oil and cooking the pork in it until nicely browned.
5. In a steamer, steam the mung beans for 10 to 15 minutes until they start to become soft. Mash into a paste.
6. Spread large squares of aluminum foil (double the size of the frame), top with bamboo leaves, then add the frame. In the frame (ideally 5x5inch square), lay down the banana leaves in a cross, shiny side up so that they can dye the rice while it cooks, then spread half the glutinous rice on the bottom. Then layer half the mung beans, the entire pork and the other half of the mung beans, and finally spread the remaining rice on top.
7. Wrap first one banana leaf tightly around the cake, then the other, then wrap the bamboo leaves around, making sure you seal the packet tightly so that no water can intrude. Tie several rounds of twine around the cake to make sure everything stays in place. The wrap the whole thing in aluminum foil and tie that with twine too.
8. Put the packet in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and simmer for 6 to 7 hours. If the cake floats in the beginning, keep it submerged with a ceramic plate.
9. Remove the aluminum foil so that the leaves can dry. Then enjoy on Tet by cutting into eight triangle servings with a very, very sharp knife.