Modernize a tradition: How Vietnamese rice cakes are mass-produced for Tet

By Nguyen Trang, Thanh Nien News

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"Banh chung" in the making at a factory in Dong Nai Province, southern Vietnam. "Banh chung" in the making at a factory in Dong Nai Province, southern Vietnam.

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For better or for worse, a family in southern Vietnam has revolutionized the making of the traditional Tet sticky rice cakes. 
Tran Thanh Toan, owner of Tran Gia factory, said he does that to meet safety standards so that he can now sell his cakes widely around the country and to Vietnamese overseas.
Legend has it that one of the princes of Vietnam's first royal family invented the recipe four to five thousand years ago. 
Made from very basic ingredients including sticky rice, mung beans, pork, the cake beat other luxury offerings at the king’s contest and has become the inevitable part of Vietnamese Tet ever since.

 Workers wash green dong leaves for wrapping banh chung at Toan's factory.

Banh chung is wrapped in dong leaves (Phrynium placentarium), a large Asian kind, into a thick square to represent the ground, according to the old time belief that the Earth was square and the sky is round.
Toan’s factory in Dong Nai Province, just outside Ho Chi Minh City, has been keeping the fire in the ovens day and night to meet the high demand for the festival, which is coming in less than two weeks.

Workers arrange banh chung in a huge ban for boiling at Toan's factory.

He has more than 1,200 workers in uniforms, masks and gloves.
Toan said the cooking process has been industrialized, but he tries to keep the taste as traditional as possible.
His factory selects quality sticky rices and leaves. 

Mung beans are grounded, each ball for a cake.

Toan said he started the “revolution” to upgrade banh chung 13 years ago.
His grandfather and father used to all sit on the floor to make the cakes.
One of them would be wiping the leaves while others wrapping them into shape and tying the knots to finish the cakes.
The makers used both hands and even their feet those days to wrap and tie the cakes tight.
“But for a food factory, you have to do the making on a table.”
Without using feet to wrap the cakes tight, Toan's workers use ten layers of leaves for each cake instead of six, making sure the leaves are perfectly arranged. 
In 2002, he started to vacuum-compress the cakes so that buyers can keep them for two months instead of two weeks.
“In order to extend the cakes’ shelf life, after we finish boiling the cakes, we spend another day processing them.”
Workers will put the boiled cakes into a tank to dry them.
After around three hours, the cakes will go through food irradiation and ozone processing before being vacuum-compressed.

 Banh chung is being aired at Toan's factory.

Toan said there’s another tip to keep the rice fine: only wrap it when it’s dry.
The wrapping for each patch takes around three to four hours before boiling, and wet rice can be spoiled a bit during the wait and the cake cannot stay edible for long, he said.
Besides banh chung, the factory also makes banh tet, which is basically the same cake but in a cylinder shape. The latter is more popular in southern Vietnam.

Banh tet at Toan's factory.

Toan is providing the cakes to major supermarket chains in the country.
He sells nearly 100 metric tons a day during the Tet season and nearly 40 tons a month all year round.
Last year, he reached out to overseas Vietnamese customers and shipped 40 tons to those living in the United States and Europe.

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