I. Bánh Chưng - Square glutinous rice cake
1. The story
The origin story of Banh Chung dates back to the sixth monarch of Vietnam. Legend has it that after defeating the An invader, the sixth Hung King sought to pass on his throne to one of his 33 sons. To determine the heir, he declared that whoever presented him with the most extraordinary dish would be the seventh monarch. While the other sons search high and low for the rarest delicacies, Lang Lieu, the 18th son, faces the challenge due to his less fortunate condition.
In a dream, a god conveyed a message to Lang Lieu: "There's nothing as precious as rice; rice keeps humans healthy and full, and you can never tire of eating it." The god guided Lang Lieu to wrap the rice in leaves in a squared shape, symbolizing the earth, with fillings representing the love and care of parents for their children.
Upon waking, Lang Lieu meticulously selected the best rice grains, cleaned them, and wrapped them in Dong leaves. The filling consisted of rich and savory mung beans with a fatty piece of pork. After boiling, the dish emerged with a beautiful light green-leaf color, the glutinous rice gave it a soft texture, and the fillings delivered a deep, rich, fatty flavor. Among all the most extravagant delicacies presented to the king, Banh Chung was the only dish that left him with a great impression, leading to Lang Lieu inheriting the throne.
The traditional Banh Chung of Northern Vietnam
2. Wrapping Banh Chung tradition
Since then, every year during the commemoration of the Hung Kings and Vietnamese Lunar New Year, people gather together and make Banh Chung. The whole family would start wrapping the cake from morning to the afternoon. At night, families will start cooking Bánh Chưng by boiling it on top of a wood fire. Cooking Banh Chung will often take the whole night, meanwhile, families could use this time to gather around the fire and rewind the passing year. This annual ritual not only honors the merits of the Hung Kings but also expresses gratitude to esteemed ancestors. It serves as a testament to the enduring cultural significance and deep-rooted appreciation for Banh Chung in Vietnamese heritage.
Man in traditional Ao Dai making Banh Chung
II. Bánh Tet - Cylindric glutinous rice
The cylindrical shape of Banh Tet originated from the cultural exchange between the Vietnamese and the Cham people. As the Vietnamese expanded into the Southern region, influenced by Cham culture's religious beliefs, particularly the worship of rice deities, they created Banh Tet.
The Southern Banh Tet's cylindrical shape is also influenced by the hotter tropical climate, making it easier to store and avoiding mold formation in corners, unlike square-shaped Banh Chung. Additionally, Banh Tet uses banana leaves instead of Dong leaves, though this change in wrapping material doesn't affect the final result or flavor. The traditional filling remains the same as Banh Chung, with fatty pork, mung beans, and spices like salt and pepper. You can also find vegan, sweet, or no-fillings options for the cake.
In comparison to the square-shaped Banh Chung during Tet, the Banh Tet from the Southern region carries profound significance. The cake, wrapped in layers of banana leaves, symbolizes a mother enveloping her child. The green color with yellow filling evokes the green hues of the countryside, the livelihood of farming, and the joy of community life, reflecting human aspirations for a warm and prosperous spring and a contended settled life.
Banh Tet is the staple in Southern Vietnam New Year's Eve
III. Banh Chung in different regions
Starting from 1802, after the country was unified under Emperor Gia Long's reign, a blending of the traditional culture of the Northern region and the rich new culture of the Southern region occurred. In the Central region during Tet, Banh Chung and Banh Tet are both wrapped and enjoyed by the people. Banh Chung in the Central region is usually smaller than its Northern counterpart, and notably, it has less filling. Banh Tet, on the other hand, is wrapped similarly to the Southern style.
In some remote mountainous areas of Vietnam, a unique type of Banh Chung exists with distinctive characteristics. For instance, in the Sapa region, Banh Chung is wrapped into small pieces, neither square like those in the North nor as long as those in the South. Two contrasting colors, white and black Banh Chung, add to the uniqueness.
Banh Chung made from black rice
The filling remains similar to the Southern region, including glutinous rice cover, mung bean filling, and fatty pork. The cakes in this region boast a soft and chewy texture, earning favor from the people of Sapa and passing tourists.
The main ingredients of Banh Chung and Banh Tet
While modern life has altered the tradition of every household gathering to wrap Banh Chung during the Lunar New Year, the warm atmosphere of reuniting with family remains untouched. Banh Chung stands as a timeless and special traditional culinary aspect in the hearts of the Vietnamese people.
IV. How do the Vietnamese enjoy Banh Chung and Banh Tet?
Every individual ingredient and material employed in the process of wrapping Banh Chung and Banh Tet serves a specific purpose, contributing to the overall outcome. The inclusion of fatty pork, for instance, serves to prevent the cake from becoming dry, while the mung beans add a layer of richness. The leaves play a crucial role in imparting a beautiful green color to the cakes after the cooking process, and the bamboo strings, beyond their function of tying the cake together, also double as a convenient cutting tool when the cakes are consumed.
Upon removing the leaves, a meticulous procedure ensues where the bamboo strings are placed atop the cake one by one, forming cutting paths. Subsequently, the cake is flipped upside down. In the subsequent cutting step, it is important to memorize the order of the bamboo strings, which will ensure the smooth cutting of the cake without disrupting the delectable filling within. Banh Tet presents a slight advantage in this regard, as you won't need to memorize the string order, but the overall steps remain consistent.
Usually portioned into six pieces, Vietnamese individuals savor their Banh Chung paired with pickled vegetables and, on occasion, sugar and molasses. In contemporary times, there have been creative explorations of turning Banh Chung and Banh Tet into dishes that are more fitting with modern tastes. An example of this culinary innovation is fried Banh Chung, where the cake is flattened on a hot oil pan, resulting in a crispy exterior that encapsulates a soft and flavorful interior.
A woman wrapping Banh Chung
V. Famous Banh Chung villages
1. Bo Dau village
Bo Dau village has specialized in making the cake for nearly 60 years with over 50 households making a living from Banh Chung. The village's Banh Chung are reportedly among the best in the North and are sold widely throughout the country and exported to Vietnamese communities overseas.
Address: Co Lung Commune, Phu Luong District, Thai Nguyen Province.
Making Banh Chung at Bo Dau village
2. Tranh Khuc village
The professional cake wrappers in Tranh Khúc don't need molds; they can wrap 80 square-shaped cakes per hour. When wrapping, they need to be skillful, follow the right process, use the correct weight, and boil for the right amount of time. Making Banh Chung may seem simple, but it actually requires high technical skills. Just one small mistake, like leaves not being clean or low-quality cooking fuel, or mixing the water at the wrong time, can immediately affect the product.
Until now, the soft and delicious Banh Chung from Tranh Khuc is not only loved by the people of Hanoi but also by people from many places, contributing to enriching the list of delicious dishes from the capital city.
Address: Duyen Ha Commune, Thanh Tri District, Ha Noi City.
Man wrapping Banh Chung using traditional methods in Tranh Khuc village
3. Lo Khe village
Not only known as “the motherland of ceremonial signings”, the Lo Khe village is also home to its’ long-lasting Banh Chung wrapping traditions. During days when the Lunar New Year is nearby, the villagers of Lo Khe work non-stop. Each person has a job, from washing leaves, soaking beans, wrapping cakes, while others boil them. The tradition of making Banh Chung and Banh Tet has been around for as long as forever, even the elderly in the village can’t recall exactly when it started. It’s passed down from one generation to another, and wrapping Banh Chung has become a traditional craft of the village.
Address: Lien Ha Commune, Dong Anh District, Hanoi City.
The famous Banh Tet at Lo Khe village
4. Dam village
This region has a tradition of making cakes for hundreds of years. The cake-making profession in the village only truly bustles around the Lunar New Year. On regular days, there are only about 20-30 households in the entire village involved in the trade. The Banh Chung in the village is mainly made from locally produced ingredients.
Address: Liem Tuyen Commune, Phu Ly City, Ha Nam Province.
People at Dam village keeping their tradition
VI. Final word
In essence, Banh Chung and Banh Tet stand as timeless symbols of Vietnamese heritage. Despite the variations in shape, wrapping materials, and regional practices, these traditional dishes are universally known and adored by the Vietnamese people. The unique characteristics infused by each region lend distinct stories and purposes to these beloved cakes, weaving a rich tapestry of culinary traditions. As we reserve the familiar tastes that have endured through generations, there is a simultaneous encouragement for inventive adaptations, seamlessly blending tradition with modern preferences. This dynamic interplay ensures that the cultural essence of these delectable creations perseveres, continuing to unite generations and celebrate the vibrant culinary heritage of Vietnam.
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