Sunday, October 30, 2011

Turning Vietnamese Episode 5: Banh Day, and a Bit of History to Boot.

Another Turning Vietnamese Post, in which I attempt to vainly maintain my grasp of my cultural identity through pursuing the cuisine of my ancestors. This post is something of a follow up to what should have been titled Turning Vietnamese Episode 0: Lunar New Year: Bánh Chưng.

This time we’ll be looking at the sky counterpart to the Banh Chung’s earthliness, Banh Day (roughly pronounced Zay in the northern dialect, yay in the southern). The story that I didn’t tell you last time is that these two dishes collectively are a key element of a story of who gets to rule Vietnam.

I’ll paraphrase this great backstory from Culture-4-Travel (check it out if you want a long read); The King of Vietnam issued a challenge to his many, many sons from his many, many women, that whoever brought him back the best dish would rule the kingdom afterwards. The winner was a humble fellow who stayed in Vietnam and was taught these dishes by a goddess, Banh Chung representing the earth with it's flatness and greenness, the Banh Day representing the heavens with its whiteness and roundness.  The king, overpowered by this amazing symbolism, pronounced humble home loving prince the winner, and everyone lived happily ever after.

I’ll try not to point out the many issues I have with this story, like how this story tells the tired tale of divine intervention leading to who rules the land. Neither will I reveal my skepticism of how no other dishes brought back would beat out Banh Chung and Banh Day in taste and how his brothers were either highly incompetent in food selection (I guess no one found a decent cake or sandwich) or the whole scheme was a sham and the king would have picked the winner regardless of what he brought him because it was predetermined from the beginning, as many government job placements tend to be, with the whole proceedings of a hiring process being a farce that’s held for legal reasons only.

Wow, that was really bitter. No, I don’t really hate Banh Day or anything, I just think it’s not the most amazing thing ever in Vietnamese cuisine. That said, I can’t deny it’s cultural significance to my culture, and really, it’s great road trip food.

I’m using an authentic recipe taught to me by my mother. I can prove it by showing you this, the handwritten ingredient list in my mother’s recipe book with no instruction on how to do it whatsoever. Thankfully, she showed me how, and now I can show you. So if you see other Banh Day in various states of preparation in the pictures, those are the superior mom versions compared to my clumsy son versions.

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Here are the two more exotic items you’ll require, glutinous rice (something of a misnomer as it has not gluten) and banana leaves.

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You will also need one and three quarters of a cup of warm water for each one pound package of glutinous rice you are using, and salt.

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Before I forget, you shall also need this special equipment, a large saucepot with a steamer insert, or something like it. Fill the saucepot with water, set over high heat, and let’s get to work.


Now for the assembly. One one-pound package of glutinous rice is mixed with 1/3 of a teaspoon of salt. You can fudge a bit with the salt measurement, so long as it’s less than a half teaspoon.

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Slowly add the warm water while mixing to incorporate.

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The key is to really work the mix, and if you can manage less water to make it stick together, then all the better.

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Eventually it will pull together into a shaggy mass like this.

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Ah, I forgot to mention mom’s secret tool. Old cereal bags. I suppose parchment paper might work as well.

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It is great for mashing the dough together to really make sure things are incorporated.

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When you’re sure things are mixed well, roll it into a log. My dough was a bit wetter than it should be, as you can see there’s a bit of residue still on the cereal bag. Ideally you’d like it to come off dryly.

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Now to portion it. First, cut the log in half.

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And slice each half into five pieces of equal size (or as best as you can manage.)

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Roll into spheres between your hands.

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Cut the banana leaves into squares large enough to place the balls into, with plenty of room to spare. Maybe three inch squares.

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Now get a bit of vegetable oil …

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And rub the banana leaves and place a ball on each. Ok, these aren’t the prettiest I’ll admit, but it was my first batch ok?

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Once you’ve assembled enough to place in a steamer tray, place on your saucepot full of boiling water to steam for twenty minutes.

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Then, remove. As you can see, they’ve flattened out a bit, perfect!

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The only way I know how to eat this is with cha lua, also known as gio lua, a kind of Vietnamese ham or sausage.

My family does it a little backwards, the traditional way is to use the either cut the banh day in half or use two of them in place of bread, and place it around a piece of cha lua. What we’ve started doing is cutting the cha lua in half, thinly, and using it to sandwich the banh day. Actually cleaner on your fingers given how sticky the banh day is! This is particularly good for road trips when you've packed these “sandwiches” in plastic, so you’re definitely clean.

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Enough of my rambling. Hope you’ve enjoyed the cultural ramblings and the recipe!

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