This past Christmas my grandmother (bà ngoại) taught me how to make bánh chưng. The last time we made bánh chưng together, I was 5. I ran amuck and made a big mess of everything – my grandmother still complains about all the tactics she needed to chase me away or keep me distracted. Nevertheless, “helping” bà ngoại make bánh chưng and staying up watching the adults tend to the fire and the bubbling pot of bánh chưng remain one of my fondest memories. Despite not running amuck and not making as big a mess this time around, learning to make bánh chưng with bà ngoại is another cherished event. It made my grandmother happy, too, finally to have someone help her make bánh chưng again. Maybe making bánh chưng will even become a regular holiday event once more!
Last year in preparation for Tết we wrote about making bánh tét, the Southern, cylindrical version of bánh chưng. The process for making bánh chưng is mostly the same:
The night before we soaked 1 bag of glutinous rice in water (no pandan leaf as with bánh tét), soaked shelled mung bean in water, and marinated strips of pork belly in fish sauce (or salt) and black pepper.
The next day, the soaked mung beans (or chickpeas) were boiled in water and mushed snowball style into balls 2 inches across. We washed previously frozen banana leaves thoroughly, wiped them dry (this took a lot of time, so plan accordingly), then tore them into 12×12 inch squares or narrow strips 6-8 inches across. (Lá dong are the traditional leaves used to wrap bánh chưng but are hard to find in the States, so we made do with banana leaves.) We then drained and seasoned the sticky rice by adding salt until it was salty to the taste. Don’t under-season your sticky rice. Bland bánh chưng is really not appetizing. Also, no coconut milk, unlike bánh tét.
Now we’re ready to wrap.
First, we laid down a square piece, then the 2 narrow strips, aligning the fibers of the banana leaves as shown:
Next, we started laying down the ingredients at the intersection of the strips: half a bowl of sticky rice, then half a ball of beans broken up into finger tip sized chunks or smaller, then 2 strips of pork belly, then the rest of the beans and rice:
Next, we took the 2 sides of the bottom strip of leaf, pulled them up and over the middle of the ingredients pile so the two ends are flat against each other, then folded the two ends down as if they were a single surface. We repeated the same folding steps with the upper of the two strips. Now we had a square package:
In the right half of the illustration above, the bottom leaf strip has been rendered translucent.
Lastly we wrapped the big square piece of banana leaf around our bánh chưng packet. Sometimes we needed a second big leaf square to give a tight, neat looking package. Cooking twines tied everything together, then it was time to cook.
The bánh chưng packages were placed skinny side up in a pot of water and weighed down with ceramic dishes. They were boiled for six hours with the lid on tight; water was added regularly so the packages remain submerged. After six hours, we fished out the bánh chưng and let them drain and dry overnight.
That’s it! We’ll add pictures from this really fun bánh chưng making session with my grandmother when we can get the photos off of my aunts’ and uncles’ cameras.
Happy New Year of the Dragon! Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!