Instead of bánh tét, people from Northern Vietnam wrap bánh chưng for Tết. This past Christmas, we learned to make bánh chưng from Grandma. For Tết in Houston, we demonstrated that the lesson (mostly) stuck.
Nem is one of my favorite snacks. Before a trip back to Viet Nam, I usually contacted my uncle ahead of time so he could buy nem that would be ready to eat by the time I land. It’s an incredibly addictive food, with its mix of sweetness, sourness, and spiciness and the blend of flavors with rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), garlic and chili pepper.
I have been making a lot of nem chua lately. It’s often made with pork, but I actually prefer making it with beef (and hence the title is beef instead of pork). In the latest batch, I wrapped a ball of just mixed meat in
1) half of a lemon leaf and
2) 1-2 plum leaf(ves)
before wrapping it in 7 layers of banana leaves to let the meat ferment over a couple of days.
A pleasant surprise finding was that lemon leaf went incredibly well with nem chua. It really enhanced nem flavors. Plum leaves were too subtle to make a difference, unfortunately.
Anyway, just thought I should share this finding so you can add a little bit of lemon leaf (you don’t need a full or half a lemon leaf…a few thin strips will do) to your next bite of nem in addition to the usual rau răm, garlic and chili pepper.
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).
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:
- pork belly with fish sauce & pepper (traditional)
- pork belly with kecap manis & pepper
- beef shank with fish sauce, curry & pepper
- beef shank with kecap manis & pepper
- 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.
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.
And here’s what that bánh tét sâu bướm (caterpillar bánh tét) looks like after cooking:
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.
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? …)
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.
At 2am, our timer alarms went off and we dragged ourselves into the kitchen to take our first batch bánh tét out of the boiling water to drain and dry overnight. This is how they looked the following morning:
And the moment of truth – cutting into our bánh tét:
Here’s a closer look, with bánh tét cut into a ready to eat slice and the banana leaves peeled away:
Aesthetically, the center should be more centered (I must have forgotten to massage this roll to distribute the rice more evenly after forming the initial cylinder) but functionally everything looked good: The banana leaves imparted their flavor and color onto the rice. The pork belly were tender and delicious. The rice themselves expanded during the cooking process and formed a solid shell around the beans and meat inside.
This is important: bánh tét and bánh chưng are associated with Tết because of their long shelf life, due in part to this rice shell. The 6 hours of intense boiling achieved sterilization and the thick shell of rice formed a hermetic seal around the nutrient dense, easily spoiled, and delicious center. Many other food associated with Tết such as dưa món (pickled vegetables) and thịt kho tầu (caramelized braised pork and eggs) – are similarly known for their resistance to spoilage. So after an intense day or so of cooking, we had food that would last for weeks, leaving us free to pay visits to family and friends, all of whom are also doing same.
Bánh tét/bánh chưng are also favored gift items during Tết visits, probably to replenish the ones eaten by previous waves of guests. Another common gift are grapefruits for the fruit tray on the ancestors’ altar. Just a single grapefruit can sometimes infuse the whole house with a lovely fragrance during the holidays. With that in mind, we put together a care package for parents and grandparents whom we sadly could not visit this year : our homemade bánh tét, a pair of Melogold pomelos, and a jar of our homemade tương ớt (chilli sauce.) Why Melogold specifically? It’s our favorite variety of the enormous citrus family. Our first encounter with it was a Toucan Sam like hunt for the source of that lovely scent that wafted across the produce section. In subsequent seasons the scent had not been as strong but the sweet, flavorful taste were still consistent. Why tương ớt? Just because we made some and we thought it was good.
Happy New Year, everyone!
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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:
Goto “3 layers of banana leaves are laid down …” until out of ingredients:
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.
Reports on cooked bánh tét and a Tết care package in the next post.