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Preparations for Tết (Vietnamese New Year): Making bánh tét

Nothing makes me feel the Tết spirit more than a gathering of the family to make bánh chưng or bánh tét followed by a 6 hour bull session around the fire while bánh is cooking. My family haven’t done it since we moved to the States though. A couple of years ago, Bird’s parents taught me how to roll bánh tét, so this year we decided to revive the tradition ourselves.

The night before: we soaked 1 bag of glutinous rice in water mixed with lá dứa (pandan leaf) juice (pandan leaves blended in water and strained), soaked shelled mung bean in water, and marinated strips of pork belly in fish sauce and black pepper.

Sticky rice soaked in pandan leaf juice

The following day we had more prep work to do. The soaked beans were boiled in water and mushed, resulting in the two big bowls of yellow paste in the picture below. (You begin to see why this is a family activity? There’s more prep work yet.)

Ingredients for bánh tét

Next, we drained and seasoned the sticky rice until it was salty to the taste and then mixed in half a can of coconut milk. While the rice marinated, we washed previously frozen banana leaves thoroughly, wiped them dry (this took a lot of time, so plan accordingly), then cut them into foot long sections. Now we’re ready to roll.

Oh wait, we should have cut cooking twine into 5 ft long sections (1 per bánh tét to be rolled) and 3 ft long sections (4 per). Ah well.

Ingredients are laid down

3 layers of banana leaves are laid down: the first and third layer are oriented with their veins perpendicular to the long side of bánh tét; the middle layer is parallel to it. Next a layer of rice is laid down, then a smaller layer of bean paste, then a strip of pork belly (see above).

Now in reverse – a layer of bean paste, then a layer of rice (not shown). Imagine a Mississippian mound for pork belly royalty:

Almost finished mound.

Next we folded all three layers of banana leaves over and start rolling and tightening:


With a somewhat tight roll bound by banana leaves, we folded close one end so the cylinder can be stood up and be topped off with a layer of sticky rice. The top end we folded close more neatly, then flipped the cylinder over and repeated the process for the other end.

Topping off

Binding: First we used the 5 ft long twine to bind the 4 sides lengthwise, crossing at the bottom and tying off on the top side. Next each of the 3 ft long section of twine was looped under and around each of the 4 lengthwise sections of twine, tied off under and above one of the 4 designated the main vein. The excess twine is pulled up parallel to the main vein and tied down when the next horizontal section is bound. Eventually all the loose ends are tied up on top become a bánh tét handle:

Proud of my bundle of joy (if joy = glutinous rice, mung bean, and pork)

Goto “3 layers of banana leaves are laid down …” until out of ingredients:

Waiting to be cooked

When all the packing and rolling were all done, we placed bánh tét vertically like fission rods in a tall pot of water. They’re then cooked for 6 hours in constantly boiling water, with pot lid on tight. Meanwhile, we relaxed, ate, drank, and dozed off with the timer alarms properly set. No bonfire but still a most pleasant time.

Cooking bánh tét

Reports on cooked bánh tét and a Tết care package in the next post.



What to do with all this pork skin?

I went to Đại Thành supermarket again today (3rd time in the last 10 days; what can I say, grocery shopping in preparation for Tết is one of the things I love about this holiday). I asked one of the men at the meat counter for a small piece of pork skin to make thịt đông (gelatinized meat) and this is what he gave me:

Pork skin

Yes, the piece is actually folded over. Its length is more than twice the length of my longest plate.

pork skin - full length

You can imagine my surprise when one of the men gave it to me. I declined the piece, saying that it was too big for me. Another man jumped in and said earnestly: “take it, it’s all free!”. Sigh, given how busy the meat counter was, I figured it’d be easier for me to take it than to insist on them cutting a smaller piece out of this piece for me. I guess there aren’t that many people going around asking for pork skin these days.

Anyway, I’ll have plenty of pork skin leftover after making thịt đông this year. Which means I’ll need to think of dishes that feature pork skin during the year!

And this last picture is for the gross factor (don’t worry, I promise I’ll cut out all the fat before I cook…I do have an MPH in Epidemiology, after all :D)

Skin and fat


More on periwinkles (ốc gạo)

Lamp wrote about how excited he was when he saw fresh periwinkles at Monahan’s Seafood, so you can imagine my excitement when I saw bags and bags of fresh periwinkles at Đại Thành supermarket in San Jose. Not wanting to repeat the coconut milk flavor that Lamp used in his post, I decided to try out other flavors: once with tamarind and the other with lemongrass, ginger & lime leaf.

For tamarind, I strongly prefer the tamarind block over all the other forms of tamarind (powder, paste, liquid, etc.). I guess I am just old-school.

Tamarind block

A chunk of tamarind is put in hot water until it’s soft and can be broken apart. It can also be boiled to speed up the process. This is what it looks like after it’s mixed well with water:

Tamarind mixed with water

c xào me (tamarind periwinkles): Pass tamarind water through a sieve to strain out seeds. Season with fish sauce and sugar to taste. Stir fry garlic slices until they are fragrant, then add periwinkles and stir for 1-2 minute. Add tamarind water, stir and cook for another 6-7 minutes. Don’t cook periwinkles for too long because the meat will shrivel up and lose flavor. The periwinkles can be dipped in the same tamarind sauce when served.

Ốc hấp sả (lemongrass-steamed periwinkles): Another method I tried was to steam periwinkles with lemongrass, ginger & lime leaf. Lemongrass is cut into thin slices or mined. Ginger and lime leaf are cut into very thin strips. Garlic is minced. Fry garlic, lemongrass and ginger until fragrant, then add periwinkles and stir for 2 minutes. Then add fish sauce and a pinch of sugar and stir for 3 minutes. Cover and cook on low heat for 5 minutes.

Cháo ốc (periwinkle porridge): I had quite a bit of leftover lemongrass-steamed periwinkles last time (due to the over-abundance of food served at dinner, not because of the quality of this dish) and decided to make periwinkle porridge. Porridge is made the regular way (boil rice in a lot of water until rice softens and expands), then add periwinkle meat & rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and cook for 5 minutes. Porridge is served hot with additional rau răm for garnish.

Lemongrass-steamed periwinkle meat

The porridge is hard to make in the sense that you’ll have to spend time digging out all the periwinkle meat while fighting the urge to eat it right away. I probably can only make this porridge with leftover periwinkles. However, this porridge is very delicious, as it’s hot and soupy and has an amazing texture that is a mix of crunchiness (periwinkle heads) and softness (periwinkle bodies). Even though the periwinkles & rau răm are only added to the porridge at the end, it’s still enough for the flavors of periwinkles, lemongrass, lime leaf & rau răm to permeate the soup and blend together. I’d definitely make this again because the delayed gratification is definitely worth it.


Holiday meals 2010-2011

New post on new dishes soon, but for now please enjoy these pictures.

This year marked the first time we cooked holiday dinners for both sets of parents. Bird’s mom was so excited about the new dishes that she refused to stand by and watch. She ran amuck in the kitchen instead. My mom said she’s never had such a relaxing holiday, and we were “contracted to cater” my parents’ Tet dinner.


Our travelling kitchen, brought to Houston for Thanksgiving

Mozzarella Balloon floating in a bowl of clarified tomato juice.

Ceviche (gỏi cá kiểu Nam Mỹ), Grapefruit salad (gỏi bưởi) and Vegetarian steak tartare.

Bún Thang (Thang noodle soup) ingredients artfully arranged by Bird's mom

Watermelon infused with spices on top of fermented glutinous sweet rice (cơm rượu)

Not shown: Vịt Tiềm Bí, Pineapple and Tomato Dessert


Pictures coming: Christmas Eve Dinner

Christmas Day dinner:

Salt steamed chicken (gà hấp muối), Duck tataki, and Bossam

Lẩu Thái / Tom Yum hot pot

Back in Ann Arbor w/ leftover ingredients:

Banana Blossom and Duck Salad (served with Duck Congee) (gỏi vịt bắp chuối & cháo)