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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.


  1. WC, I'd love this anytime, anyday. I use to get those at Hawaii supermarket, I think they sell it for 1.99, loaded with salted egg yolks, fatty pork and bean fillings, so yummy, gosh..save some for me pls !! Anyway, I didn't know its a VNY custom to eat chung, interesting. The chinese custom do not eat chung on NY, we actually eat it on Halloween instead.

  2. This is new to me!

    But there is something similar we call Bak Chang (Meat rice dumplings)...

  3. Wow, your family's pretty awesome! I don't think we've ever made at home; we usually get them as gifts or from the supermarket.

    At my stepmom's old work, someone cooked something in the microwave that had nuoc mam in it. Whooo! That really stunk the place up and got people complaining, haha!

  4. wah! you are soo lucky. that looks good. i never knew how much effort it took to make banh tet. thanks for sharing. :D it was a sweet story.

  5. my mom sent me one up for tet,too! i didn't get a jar of pickled carrots though. darn.

  6. Melting Wok,
    What's the significance of eating rice cakes on Halloween?

    There's lots of crossover with Asian cuisine.

    My friend spilled a bottle in her car and it reeked! And did you know Vietnam Airlines outlaws bringing nuoc mam on flights? Some crazy tourist bought a bottle as a souvenir and it spilled and stank up the whole plane. :)

    Budding Cook,
    I told ya the men in my family have mad cooking skills.

    Your dad's was the best!

  7. WC, am sorry bout the misinterpretation on eating rice cakes on Halloween, its actually associated with Dragon Boat Festival, and commenmorates the life and death of a great chinese poet named Qu Yuan, long story. You might wanna google and read about it hehe :)

  8. Melting Wok,
    Ah, now I understand. That makes more sense than trying to connect it with Halloween, which isn't even celebrated in Asia as far as I know...

  9. Do you know where I can get a really good one? Or what brands are good. I've gone to the San Gabriel Superstore and they only had vegetarian ones, and I am looking for one with meat. Thanks for all your help!

    - Kristen

  10. Kristen,
    I've never bought any because my family has always made it at home. My aunties gave me 3 big banh tet in fact!

    I recently saw some banh tet for sale at Pho Filet so you can check there. I don't know if they're good, but you can certainly try and see for yourself.


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