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Let Us Eat Cake

Story by: Richard Sterling
Photos by: Garrett Culhane and Greg Elms

Banh is a word for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent. Spring rolls can be called banh, as can crepes. Sandwiches, and any baked goods are called banh. And sweets and savories wrapped in leaves to be steamed or grilled are called banh. The only constant is that banh are small culinary bundles or other constructions, often eaten with the hands. Vietnamese who speak English generally refer to them as "cake." You may be asked by some generous host, "Would you like a cake?" And you might be given a cookie. "Have a cake," the merchant says. And he hands you what amounts to a sausage roll. But call it what they will, banh are quintessential street food.

Banh on the GrillThe oldest form of banh, indeed what is arguably the world's oldest form of cooking other than simply exposing meat to fire, are those wrapped in leaves. In every market, and on street corners of every city and town, you will see them. Tightly wrapped in green and tied with complex knots that would make a sailor proud, they fill baskets with their abundance, they sit neatly stacked on counter tops, and they hang in clusters from eves, cross beams, or stall corners, edible ornaments. What do they hide within? Why ask? Buy a few. Choose a fat cylinder whose weight tells you how much of your appetite it will satisfy. Select a few small ones, little culinary jewels, square, round, triangular. Take them to a shady corner and sit quietly with them for a moment. Run your fingers over the intricate lacings that bind them together. Bring them to your nose for a clue to what might rest within. Strip the lacings off, and unfold them, layer by layer by yet deeper layer. Like a Russian doll or a dancer with seven veils, it slowly reveals itself. Is it a sweet rice cake? Perhaps a morsel of spiced ham? It could be minced pork, or a piece of sweet potato, a savory rice cake, itself a wrapping for shrimp or mung beans. It could be any tasty thing in the world.

Each region in Vietnam has its own banh just as each region of France has its own wine. And the various ethnic groups prepare different types of banh with their local ingredients. People from the Tay ethnic minority wrap yams in banana leaves and call it banh khoaiso. Hmong people use banana leaves to wrap banh ngo non, or young corn banh. Sweet potatoes and cassava are other common ingredients in the highlands. Leaf wrapped banh are so popular and enduring because they are so well suited to local materials and conditions. Leaves provide a container in which foods are cooked, and also help to preserve the food and keep it from getting dirty or moldy. And it is so compact and portable that if you have banh, you've always got a movable feast. And no worries about disposing of a plastic wrapper.

Banh Wrapped in a Banana LeafThe most common ingredient in banh is rice, both sticky and fluffy. A popular type is, "square cake" known in the north as banh chung. A savory sticky rice preparation filled with mung bean paste and minced pork, wrapped in banana leaves, or the leaves of rushes, and steamed. While these can be found any day of the year, they are also important as festival fare. Legend has it that this recipe dates back to the time of the Hung kings, the original founders of Vietnam. Its shape, in keeping with Chinese depictions of Heaven and Earth, is said to represent Earth. In the central and southern parts of the country this cake is called banh u. The interior recipe is the same, but the package is intricately folded into a little pyramid. You can often see these placed on family altars, especially in farm villages, where they honor "the soul of the rice."

Banh tet, sometimes called banh tay,is said to have been first prepared by votaries of the Hung temple, near Hanoi. This is sometimes called the birthplace of the Vietnamese people, and its banh is meant to symbolize the continuity of the race, its determination to "go forth and multiply." banh tet is always filled with rice, the gastronomic symbol of fertility, and is always in the form of a cylinder of a size that fits easily in your hand. Yes, when you eat this, you eat a Phallic symbol. Honest. But it always comes with round shaped banh day, the female equivalent. Eat, and multiply.

Banh Gio, a well known treat in the north is made from rice flour and pork wrapped in banana leaves. These round-shaped things are about the size of a hamburger. In Hue a similar recipe is used, but the banh are rolled into long, thin cylinders and are wrapped in dong leaves. These are known as banh la or banh nam, depending on the thickness of the cylinders.

In Hue you can also find banh it. They are little balls of sticky rice flour stuffed with shrimp and pork. Tasty morsels, they are served plain or wrapped in banana leaves. A variation is sometimes called black banh it. These are sweet rice balls filled with a paste of sweetened mung beans.

In northern Vietnam, people pound a type of leaf known as la gai into sticky rice flour for banh gai. Now dark in colour from the gai, the banh are filled with sweetened mung beans and wrapped in banana leaves.

Banh UnwrappedLike banh gai, banh com are a speciality of the Red River delta. Green ginger leaves are used to tint sticky rice which is then filled with sweetened mung beans. After being cooked, the banh com are wrapped in banana leaves. These banh are a popular wedding gift among tradition minded people.

Also associated with marriage is su se banh. The original name of these banh was phu-the, or "husband-wife". The sticky ingredients inside are said to bind like love. Made of manioc flour, su se banh are colourless that the filling of copra and mung beans can be seen through the crust, so they will sometimes be colored red or green with vegetable dye. In northern parts su se are not wrapped, but in the central region they are wrapped in palm leaves.

As you patrol the streets for treats, keep an eye out for banh tro or banh gio. These sweet banh incorporate the pits of xoan (Japanese lily) fruit. These pits are first burned and the ashes are mixed with water and lime. Rice is then soaked in this mixture and will thicken. After cooking, enjoy them with a sweet syrup such as molasses or caramel sauce. These are believed to be good for digestion, Be aware, though, that, like saffron, in higher doses, the ash of xoan stones is toxic. People of the Tay ethnic minority also prepare this kind of banh, but they form them into crescent shapes and call it pheng cooc mo, or "cow horns".

Tasty banh wrapped in lovely green leaves are good for your tummy and good for the planet and good for your budget. But get your leafy banh while you can, for "progress" rears its ugly head in Vietnam. In the larger cities we see the beginnings of a disturbing trend among makers and sellers of banh of replacing the ancient leaf wrappings with plastic or paper bags. Certain Philistines in Hanoi have been spotted selling banh com in blue boxes instead of wrapped in fresh banana leaves. Be watchful of these "innovations." Accept no substitutes. Go for the green!

This story was excerpted from  Lonely Planet World Food Vietnam.


About the Author

Richard Sterling has been called the "Indiana Jones of Gastronomy" for his willingness to go anywhere and court danger for the sake of a good meal. His books include:

Lonely Planet World Food: Vietnam

The Adventure of Food: True Stories of Eating Everything

The Fearless Diner: Travel Tips and Wisdom for Eating Around the World

Richard also writes a monthly column for San Francisco Magazine. When not on the road, Richard can be found in Berkeley California.

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