Ingredient of the Week: Vietnamese New Year Cake

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Happy New Year! Or as the Vietnamese say, Chuc mung nam moi! It's the lucky year of the Dragon -- those born between today and February 9, 2013, are predicted to live fortunate, prosperous lives. And what better way to celebrate the new year than by eating banh chung or banh Tet, the traditional Vietnamese Lunar New Year cake?

I know this technically isn't a single ingredient per se, but with little effort, you can dress it up and make it into a dish with different texture and taste. Read on and learn about the history and possibilities of this Vietnamese New Year cake.

What is it?

Lunar New Year cakes are made by wrapping fatty pork, mung beans, and glutinous rice inside banana leaves and then steaming. The leaves' color is absorbed by the sticky rice, green being a symbol of earth and, thus, life.

According to legend, the New Year's cake dates back to the Hong Bang dynasty, when the sixth Hung emperor wanted to find a successor to rule the land. He held a contest among his 21 sons, stating whoever could most satisfy his taste buds would be named the next emperor. While all the other princes set out to find the most expensive and exotic ingredients, the eighteenth son, Lang Lieu, could not afford to do so -- he had lost his mother at a young age and was therefore destitute. He used common ingredients from around his house and came up with the glutinous steamed rice cake. When Lang Lieu presented it to his father, he said the square-shaped cake was symbolic of the earth. The emperor declared Lang Lieu the new king, and ever since, the glutinous rice cake has become a traditional food for Tet.

While the cake has two names -- banh chung and banh Tet -- the main difference is that banh chung is square in shape while banh Tet is cylindrical. They are often cooked at home and given to friends and family during New Year. Or for the less kitchen-savvy, the cakes can be purchased at Vietnamese markets and delis.

How do I use it?

Fresh banh chung and banh Tet can be eaten plain, either warm or at room temperature. Some like to dress it up with sugar or soy sauce. Once unwrapped, it will last a few days in the fridge. If left wrapped in its leaves, it can last up to two weeks. Less fresh cakes tend to be pan-fried before enjoying.

Where can I find it?

The best ones are the homemade ones found in Vietnamese mamas' and grandmamas' kitchens. But since my grandmama is long gone, I will settle for banh chung from local purveyors. Around the New Year, banh chung and banh Tet are ubiquitous in Asian grocery stores, bakeries and delis. But if you find yourself with a craving for them, say, in six months, some places make and sell them all year round. I got my banh chung this year from Tan Binh Supermarket on Bellaire and Boone.


Pan-Fried Banh Chung If you're one of the fortunate few who receives more banh chung for Tet than you know what to do with, try this simple method of pan-frying the cakes. It adds a little crunch to each bite and is a good way to "freshen up" otherwise stale cakes. The Vietnamese don't waste anything!

Banh Chung And if you're way ambitious, try your hand at making the Lunar New Year cakes yourself. Who knows, one day you may become that wise old cook with all the townspeople lined outside your door waiting with salivating tongues for your homemade banh chung and banh Tet. Most of the ingredients and supplies to try this at home can be found in the Asian grocery stores such as Viet Hoa or Hong Kong Supermarket.

Who makes the best Lunar New Year cake? Any fond memories of past Lunar New Years? Have any tips on new creative ways to eat banh chung? Enlighten us with your comments.

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