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.
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!
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.
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.