Oanh dreamt up this dish while we were brainstorming what to cook for her parents over Thanksgiving. We love lamb but it is a rarity in Vietnamese cooking and therefore always a novelty that we want to introduce to our parents. We’ve previously tried to pair lamb with tamarind, which were intriguing but could be improved. Pairing lamb with pomegranate produced a better blending of flavors while accentuating the flavor of the meat. We know the pairing worked because the chops were served to lamb skeptics and the plates were eaten clean even of the pomegranate reduction that was rich in lamb flavor.
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.
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
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.