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Thanh Nien Weekly gives you the ABCs of banh la traditional, leaf wrapped treats


Sold during the Doan Ngo festival, banh tro is a hearty, bland cake made with vegetables, ash (or lye) water

Banh la literally translates as "leaf cake" - a category of Vietnamese cakes which typically consist of rice and filling bound in tropical leaves.

These cakes evoke a particular nostalgia in Vietnam as they seem to crop up at all stages of life - at weddings, holidays and as coveted treats throughout childhood.

The traditional cakes take many forms in the north, central and southern regions but are usually comprised of glutinous rice, mung beans, and fatty pork bound up in lotus leaves, banana leaves and dong (phrynium placentarium) leaves.

All of these can be found scattered through the country's gardens and farms.

Over the years, the leaves have served as an ideal, makeshift seran-wrap. They are cheap, watertight and naturally contain phenols, which inhibits bacterial growth.

Banh la can keep for up to two weeks, if properly prepared.

For generations, Vietnam has managed to handsomely package tasty treats for important cultural occasions. Best of all, this low-tech solution is entirely green.

When Tet (Lunar New Year) arrives, two versions of banh la can be found in nearly every household: banh chung (glutinous rice square cake) and banh tet (cylindrical glutinous rice cake).

The square-shaped banh chung is popular in the north and has been said to offer a bite-sized microcosm of Vietnam's fertile farmland: a combination of sticky rice, lentils and pork all wrapped up in a dong leaf.

Banh tet is a tubular, southern adaptation of the dish and is bound in a banana leaf.

Both types of cake are given as offerings to ancestral altars throughout the country during the year-end holiday.

These treats also serve as important gifts during crucial life events.

Banh phu the are said to symbolize the bond between husband and wife. The conjugal cakes are served at Vietnamese weddings, used as invitations, or are gifted (by the groom's family to the bride's) during the elaborate engagement ceremony.

The cakes are created using a mixture of tapioca flour, pandan, mung bean paste, sugar, sesame seeds and coconut milk. The jellylike treats are packaged in unique miniature boxes fashioned out of palm fronds.

The consistency of the cakes are said to portend the stickiness (lasting bonds) of marriage.

The Doan Ngo festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar and is considered the second most important holiday in the traditional Vietnamese calendar.

Doan Ngo is considered the day to simultaneously rid one's soul and one's crops of pests for the new planting season.

Many rural Vietnamese households observe the holiday by killing insects and consuming banh tro a hearty, bland cake made with vegetables, ash (or lye) water. The cake is thought to be good for the body and digestion.

In general, banh la abound in Vietnam.

It is not difficult to find these traditional cakes in Ho Chi Minh City.

Northern-style leaf-cakes can be purchased at the Hanoi food store that sits on the traffic-circle between Dien Bien Phu Street and Nguyen Binh Khiem Street. They can also check out the Hanoi Supermaket at 189 Cong Quynh Street, District 1.

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