Our experiments with colorful bánh tét and xôi (steamed sticky rice) started my fascination with gấc (spiny bitter gourd, sweet gourd, cochinchin gourd). Lamp and I both loved xôi gấc for its nuttiness and unique flavor. Gấc was also reported to be very well endowed with healthful phytochemicals. I was curious why such a colorful fruit with very distinctive taste is relegated to only one dish – sticky rice. I wanted to explore gấc’s potential when paired with other ingredients in different preparations. So far, we found we really liked pairing gấc & tofu wrapped in lá lốt (Piper lolot) and other herbs.
Playing with gấc (spiny bitter/sweet/Cochinchin gourd) leads to vegan bò nướng lá lốt (grilled beef wrapped in lolot leaves)
Xôi (steamed sticky rice) is most commonly served as plain rice embellished with other ingredients but there are a small number of recipes where the rice itself is flavored by being soaked in plant extracts.
I was curious to see if that technique was generally applicable to any flavored liquid. As proof of concept, I wanted to see if soaking sticky rice in fragrant tea overnight would yield tea-flavored xôi. If successful, it would add innumerable possibilities to the long list of different types of xôi that already exists in Vietnamese cuisine. Continue reading to find out if the experiment worked
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.