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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.


Preparations for Tết: Bánh Tét, pt. 2

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:

cooked bánh tét

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:

Bánh tét slice close up

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.

A Tết care package: Bánh tét, bưởi, & tương ớt

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!


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.