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.

Recipe: Vietnamese New Year’s Square Cakes (Banh Chung)

Notes: I personally like to eat it plain and straight out of the banana leaves, but there are a variety of ways to consume the cakes. My grandma liked to eat hers with a sprinkling of sugar. My friends like to cut them into slices, pan-fry with some oil in a skillet until it gets crispy, and then dip it in Maggi or soy sauce. You can freeze the cooked cakes and thaw before reheating.

Ingredients

  1. 1 (14 ozs) pkg yellow mung beans, soaked overnight & drained
  2. 3 tbsp fried onion or shallot
  3. 5 lbs glutinous rice (gao nep), soaked overnight & drained
  4. 1 lb pork belly, trimmed & cubed
  5. 2 to 3 shallots, finely chopped
  6. 3 tbsp fish sauce
  7. 4 pkgs banana leaves, thawed as needed (approx 4 lbs—I get extra because they’re cheap, freeze well, and I screw up a lot while wrapping)
  8. )

Instructions

  1. Cook beans: In a large saucepan, bring to boil mung beans in enough water to cover. Lower heat and simmer until tender, stirring occasionally, approx 25m. Drain and mash into a paste; stir in fried onion, 1 tbsp neutral oil, 2 tsp kosher salt, and 1 tsp ground black pepper.
  2. Form cakes: Season rice with 2 tbsp kosher salt. Mix pork with shallots, fish sauce, 1 tsp kosher salt, and 1 tsp ground black pepper. Cut banana leaves into 40 (6″ X 9″) pieces and 16 (4.5″) squares; cut 8 of the (6″ X 9″) pieces in half lengthwise. In a 4.5″ X 4.5″ mold if using, arrange 4 (6″ X9″) leaves in each corner with greener side facing outward, 1 (4.5″) square leaf at bottom with greener side facing up, and 2 (3″ X 9″) leaves around perimeter with greener side facing inward. Layer approx 1 to 1.5 c rice, then 1/2 c bean paste, then 1/4 c pork, then 1/2 c bean paste, and 1 to 1.5 c rice again over top. Layer 1 (4.5″) square leaf over top of rice with greener side facing down, fold leaves to form a tight seal, remove mold, and tie with kitchen twine.
  3. Cook cakes Grandma’s way (the traditional method using stovetop): In a stockpot, combine cakes with enough water to cover. Submerge cakes and simmer over medium-low heat until plump and rice is cooked through and congealed, adding water as needed, approx 6 to 8h.
  4. Cook cakes the modernist way with immersion circulator: Place cakes in resealable plastic bags filled with water. Submerge cakes and cook at 98°C for 6 to 8h or until plump and rice is cooked through and congealed.
  5. Remove from water and wrap in towels. Press to drain by placing between two sheet pans and weighing down with a heavy object until cool. Serve warm or at room temp.

Active time: 1h
Total time: 7h
Yields: 8 (4.5”) cakes/16 servings

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