Monday, February 26, 2007
Banh Tet: Banana Leaf-Wrapped Care Packages
Banh tet, and the more popular banh chung, are eaten during Tet because the simple ingredients are accessible to every Vietnamese person. Since superstition dictates that you start off the year with abundance so the rest of the year will be prosperous, even a peasant can afford to make this dish. Since the first few days of Tet are a time for celebration, no work, no cleaning, no cooking, banh tet and banh chung can be eaten as is. While most Vietnamese are more familiar with the squared banh chung, my family has always made the cylindrical banh tet. The round shape means the glutinous rice can be tightly compressed, otherwise what's the point of wrapping it? Since a truly good banh tet needs to be tightly wrapped, the task usually fell upon the men in my family. Growing up, my dad worked seven days a week. So right before Tet, my mom would soak the glutinous rice and and mung beans, and marinate the pork. Then late at night, after a full day at work, my dad would assemble the ingredients - laying foil first, then banana leaves, several scoops of rice, mung beans, pork, another layer of mung beans, the final layer of rice. Then he'd tightly gather the sides of the banana leaves, fold down one side and tap it tightly, upend it, and tightly compact the other side. Then he'd tightly wind string around the whole package. Tightly, because each stage had to be compressed, tugged, folded. My parents usually made at least a dozen good-sized banh tet, sometimes two dozen. The process took hours, and I'd sometimes keep him company late into the night. Sometimes we talked. Many times I simply sat there and watched him work. After I'd stumble off to bed, my dad would pack the banh tet into a large pot and boil it it all night long. The banh tet needs to be cooked for at least 12 hours, sometimes longer. And he'd wake up many times in the middle of the night to check the pots and refill the water. Up all night even though he had to work the next day. A few banh tet would be used for altar offerings for the Lunar New Year. The rest were parceled out as gifts to family and friends. Many, many years ago when I was in college, thousands of miles away from home, my parents would mail me a banh tet with a jar of dua mon (Vietnamese pickled daikon and carrots) every Lunar New Year. That first year, the jar leaked a bit and I disposed of the box in my dorm's hallway trash can. Whooeee! The fish sauce sure made my dorm smell Vietnamese that year. Even after college, when I was living away from family, my dad would still mail me banh tet. He didn't stop until I moved to Southern California and had his family nearby to give me their banh tet. The effort my dad put into making the banh tet each year always made me appreciate how much care and love he put into each banana leaf-wrapped bundle. Even now, when he doesn't work seven days a week and can make them during the day, they still take a lot of work. And when my aunts and uncles give me banh tet, they're passing on the same care and love in each package too. This is the last of the Tet goodies my aunts and uncles gave me. I had already eaten the banh tet and banh it my youngest uncle gave me. I thought this was a banh tet but it turned out youngest auntie made cha lua (Vietnamese steamed pork paste). The banana leaves give the meat a very greenish flavor, if you will. The cylindrical banh tet is courtesy of oldest uncle. The square banh chung, vegetarian version so mung beans only, is from my youngest auntie. These have been in the fridge for the past week so the rice doesn't look as soft as my youngest uncle's fresh version.