Recipe: Vietnamese New Year’s square cakes | Banh chung
This Saturday, January 28, is the lunar new year, so an early chuc mung nam moi to you!
We are saying goodbye to the year of the monkey and hello to the rooster. People born under this zodiac sign tend to be punctual, honest, bright, ambitious, and self-reliant. However, they can also be fickle, critical, impatient, and selfish. You are a rooster if you’re born in 1921, 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, or 2017. Do you know any roosters, and do they fit the above qualities?
Anyway, with Tet being a few days away, I decided to muster up the courage to try my hand again at making a Vietnamese New Year’s cake. Last year, I tried for the first time with my MasterChef buddy, Alvin Schultz. We made banh Tet, which is cylindrical and log-like in shape. The banh chung is square or cube. Other than its shape, there is no real difference. Both contain pork, mung beans, and sticky rice. Both are wrapped in banana leaves and simmered for a long time. Both are traditional during lunar new year. Banh chung might be more frequently eaten in northern Vietnam, while banh Tet more popular in the south. Since my family was originally from the north, I grew up eating the square cakes, or banh chung.
So how did my second attempt fare? I did a test run earlier this week with Alvin and Michael Chen, who was on the same season of MasterChef as me. He was visiting from Dallas, so I decided to put him to work in the kitchen. I will say it’s still a learning curve for me. I regret not learning from my Ba noi (paternal grandma) when she was still alive and making dozens of these for family and friends every new year. Hers were the best tasting and perfectly wrapped, complete with a red ribbon for good luck. My cakes from this last session had banana leaves sticking out every which way and were under-seasoned.
Cooking is a learning process, though, and I won’t quit. I have faith that this next batch I try wrapping later today will be better, and I think after another year or two, I might get them pretty close to Grandma’s.
I’m sharing the recipe for my banh chung below, and don’t worry—I’ve adjusted the ratios so that yours should turn out better than my last run. The hardest part is wrapping it well—you need a tight seal to keep the rice from bursting out the seams. I’ll publish a video later showing you how it should be done. (Note I say “should,” because I still haven’t perfected the technique. Honestly, you should probably search for a true banh chung master on YouTube.)
But it’s in the trying and the sharing and cooking together that makes this worthwhile. And once you get it down, you’ve got parcels of savory treats to gift to your loved ones, bringing you good luck in the new year.
Chuc mung nam moi! Happy new year! And happy cooking.