Kim Hoa, owner of the 36-year-old leaf shop Co Be Hai, prepares leaves for the coming Tết (Lunar New Year festival)
The shops in Ba Chieu Market in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh District that trade in leaves used to make traditional cakes look like giant block calendars these days.
At these shops, different leaves can be seen during different seasons, and the coming of Tết (Lunar New Year festival) is signaled with the presence of thousands lá dong (Phrynium placentarium) piles as well as banana leaves that are used to make bánh chưng and bánh tét (square and cylindric glutinous rice cake with green bean paste and pork fat filling).
“These leaves may look like they are not worth much, but without them, the taste of spring is not complete,” said Lan, one of patrons of Co Be Hai Shop in the market, “Every year, when the shop is full of these leaves, it reminds me that Tết is near.”
Lan has bought lá dong from Co Be Hai for a decade now, long enough to become a close friend of the shop’s owner, Kim Hoa.
“I buy just a few leaves to cook bánh chưng, but Hoa carefully arranges them one by one and gently ties them with a rush fiber as if she is afraid of hurting it. I have never known such a leaf-lover like her.”
According to Hoa, around four to five tons of banana and dong leaves are consumed daily and they turn bestsellers from the 23rd day of the last lunar month, which falls on February 3 this year.
The leaves are planted in neighboring provinces including Long Khanh and Gia Kiem districts in Dong Nai Province, Ba Ria in the coastal province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Binh Long District in Binh Phuoc Province. They are transported to the city in trucks from midnight to early morning.
Hoa opens her shop at 2 a.m. to receive Gia Kiem leaves; banana and dong leaves from Long Khanh arrive at 6 a.m.; and Binh Phuoc leaves join the crowd at around 2 p.m.
“Shops selling leaves now occupy a corner of the market,” Hoa said as she skillfully piled 50 pieces of dong leaves and six kilograms of banana leaves for a customer who waited outside the shop on his bike.
“Here you are, be careful when handling the leaves,” Hoa told the man. Every 100 dong leaves cost VND80,000-100,000 (US$4-5).
The leaves are categorized into three sizes, large, medium and small. The large ones are used as the outermost layer of the rice cakes, the smaller ones for inner wrapping, and the smallest ones are used to stuff in small-size cakes.
There are many kinds of banana leaves, but only leaves of the chuối sứ (large banana) and chuối hột (pip banana) variety are used.
“Others are brittle and easily tear, and the boiling water enters cake. Then the cakes taste acrid and the boiled leaves’ color turns reddish which is not beautiful,” said Hoa, who can tell the name and origin of different leaves by merely looking at the color and the thickness of the leaf’s fiber.
Phuong Lam and Gia Kiem banana leaves are prefered for their rich green color, big size and resilience, she said.
By paying a little attention, customers can tell if the lá dong leaf is cultivated or grew in the wild, she said.
“The cultivated ones are thicker, greener and bigger than the wild ones, so lesser leaves are required and they produce a natural green color after boiling.”
These days, Hoa is helped by three daughters and four employees. Son, 60, is the oldest of the employees. He has worked at the shop for more than three decades, of which 20 years were spent delivering leaves. He can recite the address and the name of any leaf shop or food producer in the city that uses the leaves for their products.
Hieu, Hoa’s eldest daughter, is a lawyer, but after office hours, she goes straight to her mother’s shop to help wash and arrange the leaves until 2 a.m.
The three children get two to three hours to sleep everyday during the last lunar month before Tết. For them, it is normal activity.
“I just want to help my mom. No matter what my ‘social status’ is, I dare not look down on the leaves that feed my whole family,” said Hieu.
By Nguyen Trang (The story can be found in the January 25th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)