Tết, or Lunar New Year, is just around the corner, and for many Vietnamese this means getting together with family, wrapping sticky rice cakes the same way their ancestors have been doing for thousands of years, and telling stories about the ancient King Hùng Vương.
Legend has it that when the time came to choose his successor, King Hùng Vương asked each of his 18 sons to prepare a dish worthy of offering to the ancestors. Knowing that the best dish would mean winning the throne, each prince traveled far and wide to procure rare and fancy ingredients.
However, the youngest son, Liêu, was quite poor and lived in the countryside. Inspired by a dream, he invented a dish that contained the most humble of ingredients – rice from the nearby fields, mung beans, and pork. Liêu wrapped them in green leaves from the forest, forming one round cake (bánh dầy) symbolizing the sky, and one square cake (bánh chưng) symbolizing the earth. Although his offerings weren't as extravangant as those of his brothers, Liêu won his father's heart (and the throne) with these simple yet meaningful cakes. (For a lovely telling of the story, see Thich Nhat Hanh's "Earth Cakes, Sky Cakes".)
This recipe for earth cakes is one I learned from my mother, who was taught by Vietnamese Buddhists to make a vegetarian version using glutinous rice and soft yellow mung beans (no pork) wrapped in banana leaves, which tint the rice a subtle green. (Phrynium leaves are more traditional, but here in the West banana leaves are more readily available.) The parcels are then boiled for hours until the rice melds into a sticky, savory-sweet cake.
Wrapping the cakes can be tricky the first time, but it gets easier with practice. I recommend watching this video if you aren't familiar with the process. Some people use a wooden or metal frame to form a more perfect square shape. The mold I use was handmade by my father; they can also be found at some Vietnamese markets. If you don't have one, just use your hands to wrap the cakes tightly – you don't want the rice and beans to spill out during boiling.
Since childhood, my favorite way to eat bánh chưng has been sliced and pan fried until the edges turn a little crispy and melty. Dipped in sugar, it makes a wonderful breakfast, snack, or dessert.
Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! Happy New Year!
Makes 5 (6-inch) cakes – plenty to share with friends and family
5 1/2 cups glutinous rice
1 1/2 cups split yellow mung beans
2 pounds fresh or frozen banana leaves
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons peanut oil
wooden or metal mold (optional)
Place the rice in a large bowl, cover with water, and let soak overnight. Place the mung beans in a separate bowl, cover with water, and let soak overnight. If using frozen banana leaves, defrost them in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, drain both the rice and mung beans.
Place the mung beans in a pot with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until mashable, about 20-30 minutes. Mash into a paste with a potato masher or spoon.
Meanwhile, heat the peanut oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and cook the onions until caramelized, about 30-40 minutes.
Add the onions and salt to the mung beans and stir to combine. Spread the mung beans out on a large platter or baking sheet and let cool completely.
Wipe the banana leaves clean with a damp cloth and spread them out to dry. (A laundry drying rack works well; you can also use the backs of chairs.) If the banana leaves are particularly long, you can trim them.
To assemble, lay out two sheets of partially overlapping banana leaves, place a third leaf on top (perpendicular to the first two sheets), and a fourth leaf on top of that (perpendicular to the third sheet). (If using a mold, place it on your work surface first, then line it with the banana leaves in this manner.) Place about a cup of rice in the center of the leaves and spread out to cover a 6-inch square area (or to fill the mold). Take about a cup of mung beans and, using your hands, pat it into a slightly smaller square and place it on top of the rice. Then take another cup or so of rice and pack it over the top and sides. Starting with the innermost banana leaf, fold the leaves in one at a time, forming a square. Wrap it tightly like a present so that the contents don't shift or spill during cooking, and tie tightly with twine.
Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil. Add the cakes and make sure they stay submerged (a colander or heavy steamer basket can help keep them under water). If your pot isn't large enough, you may need to use more than one. Simmer until the cakes feel plump and the rice is congealed, about 6 hours. Keep an eye on the pot and add more hot water as necessary to keeps the cakes covered.
Place the cakes in a colander to drain and cool completely.
To serve, remove the wrapping and cut into wedges or slices. An easy way to cut the sticky cake is to use a thread or dental floss. Bánh chưng are often eaten with pickled onions or root vegetables, or dipped in sugar for a sweet treat. They can also be sliced, pan fried until golden, and served with sugar.
Refrigerate for up to 1 week.
(Images: Emily Ho)