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Feb28

A colorful new batch of bánh tét

We can’t seem to stop making bánh tét. Lamp likes bánh tét a lot and he came up with the idea of making bánh tét with stripes (like a caterpillar). I am not a big fan of bánh tét, but the idea sounded so cool and challenging that I was persuaded. Plus, there are enough friends who like our bánh tét that we weren’t afraid of having to eat bánh tét for the rest of the year. 😀

Working from a caterpillar photo, we knew we needed 3 colors: green, orange and black. Green and orange colors were easy: pandan leaf extract and gấc (spiny bitter gourd) are 2 common Vietnamese natural coloring ingredients. Black was a bit more challenging. We gravitated toward squid ink to color the sticky rice black, but we were worried about introducing a seafood taste to our bánh tét. Our other option we decided on was nếp than (black glutinous rice).

Ingredients for caterpillar bánh tét

The ingredients were laid out in the above photo (from top left, clockwise): sticky rice with pandan leave extract, black glutinous rice, chickpea paste, sticky rice mixed with squid ink and sticky rice mixed with gấc.

Sticky rice was soaked overnight and then divided into different portions to be mixed with various natural coloring agents. Black glutinous rice already had the desired color, so we only soaked it overnight. All the sticky rice portions were then stir fried for ~20-30 minutes to partially cook them. We wanted the rice to become sticky and stay in place while being rolled into a bánh tét. Black glutinous rice was harder, so I cooked it longer and with added water until it achieved a softness similar to the rest of the sticky rice. Black glutinous rice didn’t turn sticky, though.

Since the rice was partially cooked, we only needed to cook bánh tét for 3-3.5 hours instead of the full 6 hours. However, that short cooking time meant we also had to pre-cook the meat before rolling bánh tét to make sure that meat will achieve the same level of tenderness as when it’s cooked for 6 hours in a regular bánh tét. Of course, there wasn’t 1 type of meat in this batch (how could we let such a big experiment go to waste?) Here are the different combinations for these bánh tét:

  1. pork belly with fish sauce & pepper (traditional)
  2. pork belly with kecap manis & pepper
  3. beef shank with fish sauce, curry & pepper
  4. beef shank with kecap manis & pepper
  5. lamb shoulder chop with kecap manis & pepper

With all the ingredients prepared, it’s time to roll our bánh tét. Lamp laid down a piece of foil between the banana leaves and the sticky rice to prevent the green color from the leaves to bleed into the colored sticky rice.

rolling caterpillar bánh tét

Another technique we tried was a different method for tying up the bundles. Lamp read about the lost art of cable lacing from Boing Boing and Make Blog and filed it away for future use in electronics projects. Who knew it’d make itself useful instead in streamlining our bánh tét rolling. Specifically we used a 12 foot long length of twine to secure the bánh tét via a telephone hitch and four lock stitches.

Bánh tét secured as if it were a bundle of electrical wires.

And here’s what that bánh tét sâu bướm (caterpillar bánh tét) looks like after cooking:

Cooked colorful bánh tét

We were reasonably pleased with the result. Our biggest worry had been that the colors would bleed into other layers and we’d get a confused mess for a bánh tét. We were happy to see that the colors stayed where they were supposed to. However, the sticky rice grains moved a bit during rolling so the stripes weren’t as well defined as we’d like them to. Next time, we should definitely work on making the borders sharper when we laid down the grains before rolling.

Another concern was that if one sliced bánh tét before unwrapping the leaves, our hard work making caterpillar stripes would be unnoticed. But the bánh tét slices by themselves were still quite fun and colorful. And Lamp for one has no problem making jokes no one else gets.

Whoa... I can taste the colors

Of the two methods to make black rice, we found the squid ink to work better. Nếp than was very fragrant but unfortunately its colorful husk prevented it from forming a solid shell like milled sticky rice. The squid ink rice on the other hand behaved glutinously, held its vivid color without bleeding (unlike nếp than) and also did not contribute a noticeable seafood flavor to the bánh tét. (Then again, why not a seafood bánh tét? …)

More colorful caterpillar bánh tet slices - note bleeding of nếp than on the top slices

Finally, next time we roll bánh tét, we’ll have a mechanism to make sure the paste surrounds the meat – we’ll pre make bundles of chickpeas and meat rolled tight in saran wrap. It’ll probably have the effect of streamlining the rolling process too.

Previous posts : How to make bánh tét (method), cooked bánh tét (results), discussion & future directions.

This is our contribution to March Delicious Vietnam food posts round-up started by A food lover’s journey and Ravenous Couple.

Feb24

Bánh tét, pt. 3

Our bánh tét series continue… The entire process is quite a production, so we definitely have a lot to write about.

Don’t know if you notice something strange about the ingredients for bánh tét in this photo

bánh tét ingredients

Bedsides sticky rice, there are 2 types of meat and 2 pastes. Counter-clockwise, from the bottom right: pork marinaded with fish sauce and pepper, mung bean paste, lamb marinaded with tamarind and fish sauce, and chickpea paste.

Staying true to our motto of making Vietnamese food that you have always/never had, we experimented with new bánh tét fillings along with traditional ones. The pork in fish sauce and mung bean paste combination is traditional and familiar. For the new combination, we wanted to experiment with meat that has a more assertive flavor than pork, so we settled on lamb. Tamarind followed naturally, because I had always been thinking and wondering about that flavor combination for a while. The decision on chickpea was a little bit more random. We just wanted something other than mung beans and we’ve had and liked chickpeas in Spanish and Middle Eastern cuisine.

We ended up making 3 bánh tét with the experimental fillings (there were also some hybrid bánh tét where pork was paired with chickpeas). After trying the new bánh tét, we wished we had made more! :) Chickpea paste is definitely more savory than mung bean paste. On the other hand, it is similar enough to mung bean paste that most people who had the pork/chickpeas combination did not notice anything amiss, only that bánh tét was very tasty. We are glad this choice worked out wonderfully. We also loved tamarind lamb! Lamb added a very nice fragrance that permeated bánh tét. Of course, if you can’t stand lamb, you probably can’t stand this bánh tét.

Happy with our experiment and because Lamp just loves bánh tét, we are actually making another batch of bánh tét this weekend! We need to work out our new ideas for bánh tét, after all.

Stay tuned! :)

Feb19

Bánh đậu xanh nướng (Baked mung bean cake)

Wow, 3 posts on desserts in a row. This must be some kind of record for me :)

Note: This isn’t the powdery mung bean cake you can get from northern Viet Nam or  Vietnamese supermarkets in the US.

Bánh đậu xanh

This is one of the few actual recipes with ingredient measurements that we know, simply because it came from my Mom, who was patient enough to figure out all these measurements for me. This is a very easy recipe and the results are definitely yummy. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

Mung beans (without the green seed covering): 300 grams (1.5 cups)

Sugar: 300 grams (1.5 cups) (we prefer our desserts on the less sweet side, so if you prefer more sweetness, you should definitely add a bit more sugar to the batter)

Water: 1/2 cup

Flour: 1/3 cup

Tapioca flour: 1/3 cup

Coconut milk: 1 can (14oz)

Oil: 2 tablespoons

Milk: 1 cup (optional)

Vanilla extract

Directions:

– Soak mung beans in warm water for an hour, then drain.

– Boil water, cook soaked mung beans in boiling water for 8-10 minutes, then drain. Put the pot back on the stove, turn heat to very low, steam for about 20 minutes. Mash the cooked mung beans.

– Add 1/2 cup of water and sugar to a small sauce pan, cook on medium heat for about 6-7 minutes. Let it cool down

– Combine cooked mung beans, sugar syrup (above), flour, tapioca flour, oil, coconut milk, milk and vanilla extract. Blend well in a blender or run the combined mixture through a sieve to get a smooth batter .

– Pour batter into a cake pan that has been lined with wax paper. Bake at 350F for about 1h and 15 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let it cool and put in the fridge for a few hours or overnight to let it solidify further.

baking

I referred to the weekend that we made this along with bánh xèo (Vietnamese crepes) and bánh tét the “mung beans and coconut milk” weekend. They are among the main ingredients of all three dishes. I guess these dishes are from southern Viet Nam and southerners just LOVE coconut milk and mung beans 😀

Feb15

Tomato & pineapple dessert

Dessert is not my forte. I dislike baking and I never seem to be able to think of new ideas for desserts. That’s why I was so excited when I came up with this dessert and was even more psyched when it actually worked out well.

While cleaning up after a dinner I hosted last fall, I was blown away by the pineapple-tomato flavor combination (pineapple slices and grape tomatoes were used as plate decoration for a vegetarian course). The sweetness of the combo made me think of a dessert. And being from southern Vietnam, a dessert just isn’t complete without coconut milk.

So, the first idea for the dessert was to cook pineapple slices in coconut milk until soft, then serve them on clear tomato gel pieces with tía tô (perrilla) leaves. Tomato gel is made by filtering tomato puree to make clear tomato juice, which is then mixed with agar to make a gel. Here’s what tomato puree and the clear tomato juice look like:

Filtered tomato juice

This first version worked out ok, not great, for many reasons: the coconut milk flavor was quite strong and overpowered the pineapple; tía tô flavor didn’t go well with tomato and pineapple. Tía tô also makes the dessert taste confusing because it reminds people of savory dishes and doesn’t work well with sweet things. However, there were enough promises in the dish (I still liked the pineapple and tomato combination) that I decided to keep working on it.

For the next iteration, I tried to use rau om leaves with the leftover pineapple slices and tomato gel. It worked out much better due to the floral fragrance of rau om. The problem of the strong coconut milk flavor was still there, but that could be solved easily.

Tomato pineapple dessert

For the third iteration, I decided to keep the tomato gel, but did not steep tía tô leaves in the juice (steeping the herbs in the tomato juice didn’t do anything anyway), and cooked the pineapple slices only in sugar until soft. The coconut milk was mixed with maltodextrin to make it into a powder so we could sprinkle it on top of the dessert. This was to solve the problem of the coconut milk flavor taking over the dish. The dessert is served as clear tomato gel topped with a pineapple slice, which is then topped with a rau om leaf and sprinkles of coconut milk powder.

This dish has gotten better with each iteration and people seem to like it, especially the versions with rau om. Another tweak will be to figure out how to make clear tomato juice more efficiently (I had to triply filter the puree to get the juice to be that clear) to preserve more tomato flavor.

Between the 2nd and 3rd iterations, it occurred to me that the ingredients for this dish (pineapple, tomato, rau om) are among the core ingredients of canh chua (Vietnamese sour soup). Maybe in the next iteration, I can try to work tamarind into the dish. Then, as Lamp said, I should name this dish “canh chua ngot” (“sweet canh chua”). A ridiculous naming suggestion, as always.

But this dish does need a name and I am too uncreative to think of one. What do you think should be the name of this dish? :)

Feb13

Chè Banh Trôi Nước (sic) – Mung Bean Spheres in Ginger Syrup

One of the goals Bird and I are working towards is to come up with new dishes that are identifiably and uncompromisingly Vietnamese. Having availed ourselves fully of modern material culture, we still want the lineage of our dishes to be apparent, and the appeal of our recipes to mirror that of the recipes that inspired them. This is one of our successes:

Chè Banh Trôi Nước (photo by Tiến-Anh Nguyễn)

The Vietnamese inspiration for this dish was chè trôi nước aka chè xôi nước, bánh trôi nước, or bánh trôi bánh chay. Briefly: it’s a dessert of glutinous rice dumplings with or without mung bean paste filling, floating (trôi) in a strong gingery sweet syrup. The other inspiration was Thomas Keller’s fake egg yolks (encapsulated mango juice) for his vegetarian steak tartare. The third element came from a variant recipe for bánh trôi nước using khoai môn (taro) to make the glutinous outside purple. Putting it all together we get the above picture.

Our version of chè trôi nước is encapsulated mung bean milk and purple sweet potato puree. The encapsulation is done via reverse spherification: Calcium lactate and calcium gluconate is dissolved into the liquid to be encapsulated at 2% while sodium alginate is dissolved into a water bath at 1%. Sodium alginate is a substance extracted from seaweed that remains liquid until crosslinked into a gel by calcium. When mung bean milk or sweet potato puree is dropped into the alginate bath the calcium reacts with the alginate to form a gel coat around the milk/puree. The spheres are stored in a different water bath containing 8% sugar (roughly the amount added to sweeten the milk/puree) to prevent diffusion of water changing the content of the spheres. Before serving the spheres are placed in a bowl of hot (temperature wise) and spicy ginger syrup and drizzled with coconut milk. The spheres are the reason why we took off the diacritical mark from bánh (cake) to form the word banh (ball).

Banh trôi nước in sugary water bath

We were excited to serve this dish as our featured dessert during the Tết season and were happy to see it produce just as much excitement with our friends and our parents and their friends. People loved the fact that the spheres popped in their mouths. My friends in particular were reduced to the level of giggling high school stoners. Many noted the interesting contrast between the cool and almost savory liquid inside and the hot and spicy gingery syrup outside. It’s a neat effect we didn’t design for, but we’ll take credit for it. Now I can’t wait to make this dish for my grandmother, who introduced and made it for me when I was little.