How southerners reinvented Vietnam's traditional rice cake for Lunar New Year

Thanh Nien News

Email Print

RELATED NEWS

While banh tet and banh chung are both traditional rice cakes that Vietnamese must eat, or at least display, during Tet, the former is more popular in the south.
Like its northern cousin, the log-like cake is traditionally made with glutinous rice and filled with mung bean paste and pork belly, but, instead of dong leaves, it is wrapped in banana leaves.
The interesting thing is, while the square-shaped banh chung has almost stayed the same for centuries, in many places across the southern region people have reinvented their way of making banh tet.
Some have changed its wrapping leaves; some have replaced the rice, while others have added more fillings, creating many famous alternatives of the traditional cake.
The triangular

Photo credit: Tuoi Tre

This odd-looking banh tet is popular in the southern island of Phu Quoc.
It is locally known as banh tet mat cat, in which mat cat is the name of a native plant whose leaves look like palm leaves. The leaves are usually used to make non la, Vietnamese conical hats, but at some point in the past islanders used it to wrap banh tet instead of banana leaves.
Locals believe that the substitute can help keep the cake fresh longer, even though it is more difficult to use these leaves.
They have to sundry mat cat leaves, wash and then thinly apply oil on them in order to make them soft and durable. But, it still takes a lot of skills and experiences to wrap the cake properly with the leaves, as they are much narrower than banana ones.
Banh tet mat cat is mysteriously triangular and 30 centimeters long, almost double the normal length.
Despite the odd look, it is equally delicious and has a unique, beautiful jade-like green.
The purple

 Photo credit: Tuoi Tre

This attractively purple banh tet, locally known as banh tet la cam, is said to be the brainchild of a veteran baker in Can Tho City.
Its glutinous rice is colored with the extract of magenta plant’s leaves, or la cam in Vietnamese. The coloring usually starts the night before the cooking. The color purple is only truly refined after the cake is wrapped in green banana leaves and boiled for 10 to 12 hours.
The cake’s fillings are also added with salted eggs’ yolk, which is a very nice touch.
As a result, banh tet la cam probably looks the most alluring of all versions: purple rice, light yellow mung bean paste, brown meat on yellow yolks.
The secret

 Photo credit: Tuoi Tre

What makes the product of Tra Cuon banh tet village in Tra Vinh Province gain national recognition cannot be seen, but tasted.
It is publicly known that the cake is made with top-quality glutinous rice which is mixed with the extract of rau ngot, or sweet leaves. The extract gives the rice a better color and fragrance.
The more important part, its fillings, however, is made with a secret recipe invented by Thach Thi Lieu, a local woman.
Banh tet Tra Cuon, as it is known, comes in three different sizes ranging from 900 grams to 1.2 kilograms, and can be stored for up to seven days.
The vegan

 Photo credit: Tuoi Tre

This non-meat version of banh tet also originates from Tra Vinh.
In fact, it is the trademark of Khmer people who use their specialty com dep – green flatten glutinous rice – to invent banh tet com dep.
To make the special rice, they wash and sundry glutinous rice after harvesting. They then cook it in a clay pot, specifically using the stem of a banana leaf to stir the rice well until it is cooked. Once the rice pops, they pound it with a pestle and mortar.
The rice is sieved to have all husks removed, before being soaked in coconut milk for a few minutes to become soft.
Meanwhile, the cake’s fillings are simpler, as they are mainly mung bean paste added with sugar and vanilla.
To some people, banh tet com dep may not be as rich as others, but is still tasty in its own way: sweet, buttery and slightly fragrant.
The triple

 Photo credit: Tuoi Tre

In the past banh tet was usually divided into meaty – the standard fillings with mung bean paste and pork belly, and vegan ones that only have mung bean paste, or banana.
However, many decades ago, a cake maker in Vinh Long Province changed the norm by introducing a rice cake that had triple fillings: mung bean paste, pork belly, and banana.
The inventor, 89-year-old Pham Thi Sau, said initially she made the cake just for fun and for saving raw materials, but somehow many people loved it. So, later she made it for sale.
The confusingly yet deliciously tasted cake is now available at several communes in Vinh Long throughout the year.
The original Vietnamese story can be found here on Tuoi Tre
 

More Travel News