Bánh Chưng and Happy Lunar New Year – 31 of 365

Bánh Chưng

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!  Happy New Year!  Tet ushers in the year of the dragon as well as the arrival of spring here in Vietnam.   Food is an integral part of the Tet lunar new year celebration and last year one such dish called bánh chưng proved a little bit on the exotic side for me.   I got to thinking how I really should resample this national dish since this is Tet after all and understanding food can help us unlock a culture.   Maybe I had it all wrong last year and the second time will be the charm.

Off I went in search of a food I had previously vowed would never again enter my mouth.  This just goes to show never say never in life since here I am a year later asking my cabin crew where I could buy a nice bánh chưng, or steamed cake.  My request left both Ms. Anh and Ms. Suong visibly taken aback since I am not Vietnamese after all.   Ms. Anh even asked how I know about bánh chưng.  Of course I don’t exactly live under a rock in some cultural void.  I didn’t tell her that though.  That would be rude.   But they were pleased enough with my curiosity about the cake and told me I could buy a nice one at the Hanoi airport.

I managed to score one from a shop just outside security, and the young girl there was shocked when I asked for it.  She chattered loudly to a hidden colleague who emerged from her nap under the counter long enough to rub her eyes and watch me take possession of my hefty green package.  I can hear her now, “Hey, wake your butt up.  Quick.  Check out this American dude.  What the hell is this freak doing buying this stuff?   I’ve seen it all now.”  I felt their eyes burning holes in my backside as I walked back to the gate area.

Bánh Chưng Unwrapped

Bánh chưng’s contents are a surprisingly simple mix of glutinous rice, pork, mung bean, salt, pepper, and of course…fish sauce.  What’s a Vietnamese dish without some salty fermented nước mắm rounding out the ingredient list?   Several preparation steps bring the cake to the point where I am transporting it home to Saigon at 36,000 feet.  First the mung beans and glutinous rice are soaked for hours.   Leaves are laid out and then a layer of rice placed on top.  The pork and bean filling comes next and then is surrounded by another rice layer.  The entire parcel is tightly wrapped to create a waterproof seal.  Either lá dong or banana leaves form this outer wrapper bound by string made from a type of bamboo.

Boiling the entire package for several hours pushes the bánh chưng across the finish line, and by now the color of the leaves has tinted the outer rice crust green.   Bánh chưng keeps several weeks unrefrigerated prior to unwrapping and for several days once opened.  Scary, huh?  Being in a Tet state of mind I wanted to share my green brick with friends so I recruited Ryan and Melissa for the unveiling.   Knowing what lurked inside the green leaves, neither was overly enthusiastic but to their credit they played along.

The Actual Food Inside the Leaves

Ryan peeled the parcel open, and the overwhelming scent of canned dog food filled the kitchen.   Next we had a sticky mess on our hands as Ryan used the bamboo strings to cut the block into triangle sections.   A short lived taste test was enough for each of us to quickly shut this food exercise down, but please note we did try to enjoy it.  I had asked several Vietnamese coworkers and friends if they like this Tet cake and no one appeared overly enthusiastic about it.  Answers ranged from the standard nervous giggle to it’s eaten out of tradition.   Perhaps  grandma’s fruitcake is a good analogy.  It sits in all its candied fruit glory on the holiday table even if no one really wants to take a bite.   Vietnamese culture deeply respects tradition, whether it tastes good or not.  This is more than can be said for that fruitcake.

We later moved the taste test curbside in front of the apartment building, and a bowl full of leftover  bánh chưng had us wondering how to dispose of it without upsetting any Tet juju.  We even asked a security guard and taxi driver if they wanted some of the action, but they gave us the Saigon twisting back and forth of the hand and wrist that means “cannot.”  Even these guys didn’t want a piece of our largesse.   Interestingly enough the only living being who enjoyed our cake was, Yen Phu, Ryan and Melissa’s pet rabbit.  She excitedly devoured a few pieces and God know what it’s doing to her insides right now.   I hope all that sticky rice and pasty meat doesn’t stop her up.

Even if the taste is a bit foreign to us Americans, embracing new traditions and a holiday previously unfamiliar to us back in the United States makes Vietnam feel more like home.  Wherever in the world I land for Tet next year, I just may have to look for a bánh chưng to properly ring in the lunar new year.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

One Comment on “Bánh Chưng and Happy Lunar New Year – 31 of 365”

  1. December 13, 2012 at 5:38 am #

    Maybe you’ve covered this elsewhere in the blog, but bánh chưng cut in thick slices and fried until crisp and golden is an entirely different beast. Yum! Also, you really need some nước mắm, củ kiệu (pickled scallions) or dưa món to balance the bland aspect. Or mật mía, as is used in some areas, if you like sweet rather than salty and sour. Your airport purchase was probably not fresh. They tend to get hard after the first couple of days. A fresh, warm bánh chưng is actually quite tasty. If you’re ever in VN over the New Year holidays again, try to get in on the cooking action so you can taste it when it comes out of the pot.

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