Banh Chung, or Chung Cake, is a traditional Vietnamese steamed sticky rice cake, which is made of glutinous rice, mung beans, pork, and other ingredients. Chung Cake is considered an essential element of the family altar on the occasion of Tet (Vietnamese’s New Year), the making and eating of Chung Cake during Tet is a well-preserved tradition of Vietnamese people. For every Vietnamese, making Banh Chung is the ideal way to express their gratitude to their ancestors.
Beside the Tet holiday, Banh Chung is also eaten all year round as a delicacy of Vietnamese cuisine and one of the national dishes of Vietnam, in addition to Pho.
The origin of Banh Chung is told by the legend of Lang Lieu, a prince of the last king of the Sixth Hung Dynasty (B.C), who became the successor thanks to his creation of Banh Chung and Banh Giay (a white, flat, round glutinous rice cake with a chewy texture), which symbolized, respectively, the Earth and the Sky.
It was said that in choosing a successor among his sons, the monarch decided to carry out a competition in which each prince brought a delicacy representing the sincerity for the ancestors on the occasion of the Tet, whoever could introduce the most delicious dish for the altar would become the next ruler of the country.
While other princes tried to find the rare and delicious foods from forest and sea, the eighteenth prince, Lang Lieu, who was the poorest son of the Hung king, could not afford such luxurious dishes and had to be content with everyday ingredients, such as rice and pork. Finally, he created one cake in the square form of earth called Banh Chung and one in the round form of sky called Banh Giay from these simple ingredients.
When tasting the cakes offered by his son, Hung king said Banh Chung and Banh Giay not only delicious but also a fine representation of the respect for ancestors, and then decided to cede the throne to Lang Lieu. Since then, Banh Chung and Banh Giay became Vietnamese’s traditional foods during the Tet.
There is a popular couplet describing the essential elements of a traditional Tet among the Vietnamese:
“Rich meats, Pickled onions, red couplets
Neu tree, firecracker, green Banh Chung”
The required ingredients of Banh Chung are glutinous rice, mung bean, fatty pork, black pepper, salt, green onion, and fish sauces for spices.
The making of Banh Chung
For wrapping, one needs “la dong” (a big green leave, popular only in the Southern Asia, replicable with banana leaves), split thin bamboo strings, a square wooden mold so that Banh Chung can be wrapped in a better shape.
People often choose high quality glutinous rice and mung bean, they are both soaked mung bean in water for 2 hours and 12 hours for glutinous rice.
The fat and lean pork is preferred for Banh Chung because its fatty flavor well associates with the glutinous rice and mung bean. After being sliced in big parts, pork is mixed with pepper, onion and salt or fish sauce.
The cake is wrapped in the following order. Firstly, bamboo strings and two” la dong” leaves are placed as the square base for the Banh Chung. Then, glutinous rice is stuffed in “la dong”, followed by mung bean, pork and finally another layer of rice so that bean and pork can be respectively in the center of the cake.
All placed ingredients are carefully wrapped in “la dong” and bound by bamboo strings in the square form. In order to get a near perfect square-shaped cake, the maker usually use a mold of square form as the base for the wrapping. To keep the cake from mold or being spoiled, Banh Chung should be carefully wrapped as tight as possible.
The prepared cakes are tightly arranged in large pot, the pot is filled with fresh water and boiled for 16 hours during which the adults and children sit together around the boiling cauldron.
The well-made Chung cake should have the green color from the color of “la dong”, all the pork and mung bean are very well-cooked. The taste of Banh Chung varies from part to part with different flavors of glutinous rice, pork, bean and even the wrapping “la dong”.
Each Banh Chung is often divided in 8 parts, usually by using the split bamboo string from the cake. Banh Chung is often served with pickled onions or vegetables, and fish sauce or sugar.
After unwrapping, Banh Chung can stay good for several days while a wrapped one can be kept for two weeks.
In the countryside, to ensure that Chung Cake is available for every family even the poor ones, a fund called “ho banh chung” (chung cake for everyone) is jointly set up and about one month before the Tet, the accumulated capital and benefit are divided between members of the fund so that they can have enough money to prepare Banh Chung.