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For Lunar New Year, a Movement to Popularize a Lesser-Known Sticky Rice ‘Cake’

Americans know about dumplings, but what about Vietnamese banh chung?


spinner image banh chung made for lunar new year
Square, savory banh chung is the soul of Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebrations, which begin Feb. 10, 2024.
Alamy

If food has the power to conjure the feelings of a holiday, then a Vietnamese traditional sticky rice treat has all the flavors of the Lunar New Year.

The soul of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year is the square, savory rice cake known as banh chung. The main ingredients are simple: pork belly nestled in a layer of mung beans, encased in sticky rice, then wrapped in leaves. The treat looks like an elegantly wrapped present. But with its savory ingredients, is it accurate to call banh chung a cake?

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“It’s really hard,” says Diep Tran, a Los Angeles-based chef, about describing banh chung. Some say it’s closely related to the tamale, but she settles on a description: “I think it’s a dumpling.”

On Feb. 10, many Asian American Pacific Islanders will celebrate the start of the Lunar New Year and usher in the year of the dragon. The holiday is celebrated throughout the world by many different Asian cultures.

In Vietnam, Lunar New Year has its own name — Tet Nguyen Dan or Tet for short — and its own iconic food. Banh chung and its closely related sticky rice treat banh tet are essential foods, says Trần Thị Minh Phước, an author and retired librarian who wrote about the legend of the banh chung in her 2015 book, Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories.

“I would say among the foods of Tet, banh tet and banh chung are the must-have rice cakes served in every family during the new year,” Trần Thị Minh Phước, 69, of Minneapolis, says.

spinner image ingredients for banh chung including pork belly mung beans and sticky rice
Banh chung is made of pork belly, mung beans and sticky rice. It’s then wrapped in green banana or dong leaves and wrapped with bamboo strings.
Diep Tran

To raise the banh chung’s profile in the U.S., Diep Tran, 51, founded the Banh Chung Collective in 2013. This year in its 12th meeting, the collective will hold virtual and in-person cooking classes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, on Feb. 17. She wants to shift the labor-intensive cooking tradition to a casual experience.

“We can create our own,” says Diep Tran. “And it’s just as valid.”

A celebration of one’s own

Lunar New Year is celebrated around the world by about 2 billion people in China, Korea and other Asian countries, as well as by the global Asian diaspora. The holiday follows the lunar calendar, so the date varies every year.

In Vietnam, Tet is the most important festival of the year, Trần Thị Minh Phước says. Families clean and decorate their homes with traditional harbingers of spring such as daffodils or peach blossoms. According to tradition, families make, eat and offer the square sticky rice treats to their ancestors.

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Like many other Lunar New Year dishes, banh chung is steeped in symbolism. Traditionally, the banh chung is wrapped in green banana or dong leaves — a plant that grows abundantly in northern Vietnam. Bamboo strings are used to knot it, symbolizing the security of the home, says Trần Thị Minh Phước. The stickiness of the rice represents ties to the community, while the pork and yellow mung beans stand for the flora and fauna of the planet.

As in Chinese culture, Vietnamese culture has its own zodiac calendar with each year represented by an animal. However, there are variations in the Vietnamese calendar. Last year, the Vietnamese celebrated the year of the cat, while the Chinese zodiac calendar welcomed the year of the rabbit. Both calendars align this year under the dragon, which according to the Vietnamese horoscope will bring “prosperity, good luck, great fortune, personal growth and career advancements,” Trần Thị Minh Phước says.

A dumpling in any other shape

Banh chung, in its square shape, is a regional food that is popular in northern Vietnam. It has a fraternal twin: Take the same ingredients and mold it into a cylindrical shape and you have the southern Vietnam version — banh tet.

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Making banh chung is about honoring tradition, but also about making it your own. Traditionally, making banh chung was laborious. Cooks would assemble the ingredients and wrap them all day, then cook them all night.

“You’d have to like stand vigil at this pot,” says Diep Tran, who has dedicated her career to spreading the gospel of Vietnamese food in her Southern California restaurants and cookbook. “It’s hard when you do it the OG way.”

At the Banh Chung Collective classes, tradition is honored in personal ways. To make the tasty treats, participants take them home to cook on the stove top or in a pressure cooker. There’s no need to stay up all night.

“Culture in general is dynamic,” Diep Tran says. “It changes. It morphs.”

In 2019, Alice Y. Hom attended the banh chung-making class with her mother, Sandy Hom. At the event, Sandy Hom, now 95, befriended another woman of a similar age, who spoke the same Toisanese dialect.

“They exchanged numbers and became friends,” says Hom, 56, of Oakland, California. “Over the past few years, they’ve gotten together a few times with the help of their children who would drive them for meal get-togethers.”

To make banh chung, Diep Tran emphasizes an inclusive ethos where there’s no right way to make the dish.

“I really try to teach the method,” says Diep Tran. “But if it comes out wonky, that doesn’t make it less of a banh chung.”

What matters are the flavors and the joy of creation.

“You made it with your own hands,” Diep Tran says.

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