Many thousands of years ago there was a king with 24 sons. And so it was, that he wanted to see which of his sons was best suited to step into the role. In order to be happy and peaceful in retirement, he had after all defeated the Chinese Invaders, he sent each prince set out on a journey to every corner of the kingdom to find the most exotic, unusual, and far-fetched foods. Upon their return he would select the best for his kingdom and the chosen son would become king.
One son who was shy and quiet and without much means to travel far and wide fell asleep after thinking of the many ways he could possibly make his father happy again at which time he had a visit from a genie:
In this dream an old man with white-silvered hairs approached him and said: "Your devout and caring has touched my heart very deeply. You truly deserved the royal throne of your father. You don’t have to go anywhere to find foods. It is just a waste of time and money. Of all the foods, rice is the most precious and valuable of all, yet very abundant. You find anywhere in your father’s kingdom. Cook it very thoroughly then mould it into a round rice cake, and call it Banh Day. This will symbolize the sky you live under. Then do the same for the square rice cake. Stuff cooked bean paste and ground meat in the middle of the square rice cake and call it Banh Chung. This will symbolize the earth. Present these cake to your father as offerrings to your ancestors." With a whisper the Fairy disappeared.
With an endorsement like it won’t surprise you to learn that upon tasting his son’s banh chung the king was ecstatic and proclaimed him king.
Today the rich tasting treat possesses a well-seasoned and savory filling of mung bean paste and small bits of pork meat pressed between layers of glutinous rice. Today the sticky rice cake known as Banh Chung is a Vietnamese traditional dish found at Tet, the Vietnamese New Year which in 2008 falls on 7 February. These treats are often found on most New Year celebration tables and are commonly placed on ancestors’ worship altars. Preparation begins several days before the passing year closes whereupon the women of the family gather to prepare glutinous rice, pork meat and green bean paste. It is then wrapped in a square of rush leaves which imparts a green color to the rice after nearly 10 hours of boiling. Rice is soaked for a day, the pork meat retains it’s skin and fat; the green beans typically of uniform size and the rush leaves cut fresh, the bamboo tying strings measured and cut. They have a long cooking period and can either be eaten warm or at room temperature. Friends at work tell me they also can be fried up making for a crispy pancake treat. Needless to say this is certainly not a last minute effort!
As the dream symbolism foretold, the square shape of the cake represents thankfulness for the great abundance of the Earth, [the Vietnamese at that time assumed the earth was square], which supplied nutritious food throughout the four seasons of the year. The leaves wrapped round the square cake denoting parental protection.
In the central and southern parts of the country this cake is called banh u. The interior recipe is the same, but the package is intricately folded into a little pyramid. You can often see these placed on family altars, especially in farm villages, where they honor "the soul of the rice."
Today banh chung are sold at markets and delis. I’ve included the recipe here if for no other reason than to have a shared appreciation for the amount of preparation work entailed and for the cultural tradition. I typically find mine in one of the many Asian markets in San Francisco. An Tet!
Tet Sticky Rice Cake
Adapted from Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table, Mai Plam
1 3/4 cups sticky (glutinous) rice, preferably long-grain
1 drop of green food coloring (optional)
1/4 cup dried split mung beans
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
5 ounces pork shoulder or butt, cut into 1/4-inch-thick chunks
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 (14" x 16") sheets plastic wrap plus extra
1 (14" x 16") sheet aluminum foil
2 (14" x 14") pieces banana leaf
Place the sticky rice in a large bowl and cover it with 3 inches of water. Stir in the food coloring, if using, and let the rice soak overnight. (Once soaked, the rice will double to about 4 cups.) In a separate bowl, soak the mung beans for at least 4 hours. Drain both just before using and set aside in separate bowls. Add the salt to the rice and stir to blend.
Combine the shallots, fish sauce, black pepper and pork pieces and let marinate for 30 minutes.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over moderate heat. Add the pork pieces and all the marinade and stir just until the meat is brown around the edges, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
Using a steamer basket, steam the mung beans until they are soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
To make the packet, neatly lay down the wrappers in this order: 1 sheet of plastic wrap (leave the other for use later), the aluminum foil, 2 sheets banana leaves (one perpendicular to the other). Place one cup of the rice in the center of the banana leaf, spreading it to cover a 5-inch square. Place half of the mung beans on top, then add the pork pieces. Cover with the remaining mung beans and place 1 cup of rice on top. Bring the narrow sides of the wrappers together. Fold the gathered edges over twice, then flatten against the packet. (You now have two open ends.) Fold one end over and hold the packet upright. Add half of the remaining rice, tapping it and pushing it down so the packet will be an even square. Fold the end over and repeat on the other side.
Place the packet with the folded sides down in the center of the remaining plastic sheet. Wrap tightly so that water will not seep into the packet during cooking.
Tightly tie the packet with two parallel strings in both directions (as in a tic-tac-toe pattern).
Fill a large stockpot with water. Add the packet and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Place a colander or something heavy on top of the packet to keep it submerged in the water. Cook uncovered until done, about 6 hours, adding more water if necessary. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for 1 hour.
To serve, cut the packet (without unwrapping) into 1/2-inch slices. Remove the wrapping and arrange the slices on a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature. If wrapped in plastic and refrigerated, the cake will keep for 1 week.
Cooking time can be reduced to roughly four hours by precooking the rice, toasting the soaked, and drained rice in a nonstick pan over medium heat until it is dry and looks opaque.