The story:


 Legend has it that King Hung Vuong VI one year challenged his 22 sons that whoever came up with the best food dish for Tet would inherit the throne. While all the other princes searched far and wide for the most exotic dishes to present to their father, Lang Lieu, son No. 16―the shyest and kindest of all―created an extraordinary dish using simple ingredients. The recipe was based on a dream in which a genie told him the dish that wins the throne must be made with rice. He instructed the prince to take sticky rice and form it into a square to symbolize the earth and tuck mung bean paste and pork in the middle. After that, wrap the cakes with banana leaves and cook for one day and one night.
The prince followed the genie's instructions, and prepared banh chung for the king. After eating the cakes, the king was ecstatic and proclaimed son No. 16 heir to his throne. Later when he learned of the dream, the king became further convinced that not only did the cakes represent the bountiful green earth (the green tinge came from the banana leaves) but the cakes were blessed because of the celestial connection. The king ordered that the recipe be shared with all commoners, and thanks to that decree banh chung is today an official Tet food.







Equipment:

  • Wooden Frame, (instructions follow)
  • 16 dried bamboo leaves
  • 12 pieces green banana leaf (or frozen and thawed), trimmed, rinsed, and wiped dry
  • 16 pieces of kitchen twine, cut into 20" lengths (additional needed if used for cutting)
  • kitchen shears
  • 4 sheets of heavy-duty aluminium foil, cut in 30x45 cm (12" x 18") sheets
  • Chinese double steamer
  • Parchment paper
  • Food processor
  • Deep stockpot for boiling cakes
  • Plastic wrap


Ingredients:


  • 1280 ml (5 1/4 cups) long-grain sticky rice (soaked overnight and drained before assembly)
  • 1 415 ml (14-oz) can of coconut juice (NB: not coconut cream)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon sea salt
  • Cold water
  • 640 ml (2 2/3 cup) dried, hulled, and split yellow mung beans (soaked overnight and drained before assembly)
  • cold water
  • 1 570 gm (1/4 lb.) boneless pork chop (or pork butt), with some skin and fat
  • 1 medium-sized Vidalia or Spanish onion, minced
  • 3 tablespoons of sea salt
  • 3 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil or other neutral oil (if frying cakes)




Prepare the Ingredients (The Night Before)

1.Soak the bamboo leaves, placing them in a large roasting pan and adding water to cover. Put a plate on top of the leaves to keep them submerged.

2.Cut the pork into pieces the size of a deck of cards (3-inches long, 2-inches wide and 1/2-inch thick). Each piece should have some fat and skin. Add the onion, fish sauce, pepper, and pork to a bowl and mix well. Let marinate overnight.

3.Soak the rice in coconut juice and let it sit for a 1/2 hour. Then, cover it with three inches of water and let it sit overnight.

4.Place the mung beans in a bowl and rinse under cold water until the water is clear. Drain, and then add enough cold water to cover beans by 1 inch. Let soak overnight.




Prepare the Ingredients (The Morning of Assembly)

5. Drain the mung beans. Fill the Chinese steamer bottom halfway with water. (If the tray holes are larger than 3/16-inch in diameter, line the tray with parchment paper and leave a few holes uncovered for heat circulation.) Bring to a rolling boil over high heat.
Put mung beans in the steamer tray and spread them out evenly. Place the tray in the steamer of boiling water and cover. Steam for about 8 minutes, or until the mung beans are tender. Remove the tray from the steamer bottom and set aside until the beans cool completely.

6. Process the cooled beans in a food processor until it reaches a fluffy consistency. It should look like fine cornmeal but should hold together when you pinch a small bit between your fingers. At this point, the ground beans are ready to use.

7. Drain the rice in a colander and return it to the bowl. Gradually mix in the salt, sprinkling it over the rice and using your hands to distribute it well.

8. Drain the bamboo leaves, rinse, and set aside.

9. If you are using frozen banana leaves, defrost them by soaking them in hot water and rinsing thoroughly. Pat them dry and cut them into sheets of 5" x 12". Set aside.



Assemble and Boil the Cakes

10. To make each cake, put a 12" x 18" inch sheet of heavy duty aluminium foil on your work surface, with the shortest side closest to you. Place the mould on the centre of the foil. You will need 4 bamboo leaves to form the frame—the corners and edges—for the cake. Working on one corner at a time, fold a bamboo leaf lengthwise along the spine (with dull side out); then fold in half crosswise. Crease the centre fold. To form a 90-degree corner, simply unwrap the leaf and bring the lower centre crease up to meet the spine. The leaf should now look like an upright corner of a paper box. Place the folded bamboo leaf into one of the corners of the mould, with the ends pointing touching two of the walls of the mould. Repeat with the remaining 3 bamboo leaves, going in one direction around the mould and overlapping the leaves as you go. When you are done, the leaves will look like a picture frame. Push the leaves down into the corners to make sure they are snug and flush against the mould. Straighten any slouching leaves.

11. Next, line the interior of the mould with banana leaves, shiny side up and facing you. (This allows the green of the banana leaves to dye the rice while cooking). Place a banana leaf so that one of its shortest sides lays flush with the inner wall of the mould that is closest to you; the banana leaf should cover the bottom of the mould and extend above the mould on the far wall. Place a second banana leaf in the reverse direction. The two banana leaves will overlap each other to form the base of the mould. Equal lengths of leaf should extend above the mould on the far and near walls. Then, arrange a third banana leaf, with its long side closest to you, evenly across the bottom of the mould, so that short lengths of leaf extend above the right and left walls. All 4 walls of the mould are now lined. Use your fingers to tuck the leaves into the mould.


Layering the ingredients inside the leaf and metal frame.



12. To add the edible ingredients, first scoop up 1 cup of the prepared rice and pour it into the mould. Use the back of a large spoon to distribute the rice evenly, taking care to push the rice all the way to the inner edges of the mould. Next, add 1 cup of lightly packed mung beans, pouring and patting it in a light pile in the centre of the mould. (Do not push the mung beans to the edge of the mould.) Then, pour 1/2 cup of rice to create a wall of rice around the mung bean square. Next, centre a broad, flat piece of pork on top of the mung beans, spreading single or several pieces of pork to create a flat, roughly square distribution of pork. (Again, take care not to place the pork toward the edge of the mould.) Top with another 1 cup of mung beans to create a shell around the pork. Finally, finish by burying the pork and bean core with 1 cup of rice, pushing rice to the sides and corners and flattening out the surface. The mould will look very full.

Wrapping banh chung.



13. Cover the top of the cake by folding in the side flaps of banana leaf. Then, fold the side farthest from you down over the cake. Finally, fold over the side nearest you over the cake. Use your hands to press down firmly on the cake to compact the ingredients and distributing them evenly. Once the top of the cake is relatively flat and level, put one hand on top of the cake to hold the leaves in place. Gently pull off the mould with the other hand. Temporarily wear the mould as a loose bangle while you fold the top flap of the foil down, followed by the bottom flap of the foil. With the loose open ends of the foil, fold the 4 corners in at small right angles, as if wrapping a gift. Then, fold up the loose sides to form a foil-covered square box. Pick up the cake and gently tap its edges on the table to firm the angles and tamp the ingredients. Secure the cake by wrapping it with kitchen twine. Since the rice will expand during cooking, don't tie the twine too tightly around the cake. The twine should not make an impression in the foil.


14. Repeat steps 10 through 13 for the remaining 3 cakes. (Save any leftover rice and steam it as you prefer.)



15. Fill a 12-quart stockpot half full with water. Place the cakes in the pot, stacking, and/or standing them up. Add enough water to cover the cakes. To keep the cakes from floating, place a heavy ceramic plate on top to gently weigh them down. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, and then turn the heat down to return the water to a gentle boil. Cook, uncovered, for 7 hours. Every 2 hours, rotate the cakes so that they cook evenly. As the cakes cook, they will expand and gain weight.

To maintain a gentle boil, keep a separate kettle of boiling water on the stove to replenish the stockpot as needed; it is okay if the water drops to an occasional simmer. When the cakes no longer float (about 3 hours into cooking), remove the ceramic plate and continue boiling.

16. After the seven hours, use tongs to transfer the cooked cakes to a pot of cold water. Once they are cool, transfer the cakes to a baking sheet, placing the seam-free, neater-looking, square side down. Put another baking sheet on top of the cakes and centre a cool stockpot full of water on the top sheet to press. This will flatten the cakes and drain them of excess water. Keep pressed for 8 hours or overnight. (Eager eaters wait only 1 to 2 hours for cooling, but these cakes tend to be waterlogged.)

17. The next morning, cut around the knot in the twine and remove the foil. Wipe off any stray bits of rice and wrap each cake in plastic wrap. For display purposes, you may tie colourful ribbon around each cake. Cakes may be kept at room temperature for 3 days, beyond which they should be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. They may also be frozen for up to 3 months. (Take care to cut the cake into wedges before freezing. Otherwise, you'll be forced to thaw and eat the entire cake in one go.)

Serve the Cakes
There are three ways to enjoy banh chung: soft, which allows you to fully appreciate the pale green color and subtle tea flavour of the banana leaf; fried into chewy crispiness; or grilled, which reduces the use of oil and creates a gently smoky crust.



To cut and serve the cake soft:
First, undo the plastic wrap and keep it spread out underneath the cake. Remove and discard the bamboo leaves (but keep the banana leaves intact). Return the cake to the plastic wrap, open side up (as it was when you were assembling the cake). Peel off the top and side banana leaf flaps, leaving them on the plastic wrap.
Cut the cake into 8 equal triangular wedges (think of an asterisk). Because a knife drags through the sticky rice and yanks out the prized morsels within, twine is best for cutting through the cake. Cut 4 lengths of twine about 20-inches long and arrange them on the cake in the pattern of an 8-spoked asterisk: position 2 strands to form an "X" across the cake, 1 strand horizontally across the cake, and 1 strand vertically down the middle. One at a time, grab the ends of each strand and tighten the strand down to form a 1/4-inch impression in the cake. (This secures the twine in place.)
Using the plastic wrap to pick up the cake, invert the cake onto a serving plate. Peel off the plastic wrap and remaining banana leaves. One strand of twine at a time, grab each strand's ends. Pull both ends up through the cake, crossing toward the centre, and lifting the strand out of the cake altogether. (You may have to pause midway to pull on other strands as you make the cuts.) When all strands are removed, the cake will be cut into perfect wedges.


To cut a cold cake and serve it soft:

If the cake is firm from refrigeration, then unwrap the plastic wrap and bamboo leaves. With a knife, cut an asterisk pattern through the banana leaves and cake. Microwave the pieces until soft and serve.


To fry and serve a cake:

Nicely cut wedges are not necessary if you are frying the cake. Use a knife to quarter the cake, then cut each quarter into 1/2-inch thick slices.
In a 10-inch non-stick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add half of the slices and fry, undisturbed, for about 6 minutes (or until the rice has softened). Use a spatula to press and mash the chunks to form a large pancake. Then, continue to fry for 5 or 6 minutes (or until the underside is crispy and golden).
Flick the pancake with a quick and confident jerk of the skillet handle (or slide the pancake onto a plate and then invert the pancake back into the skillet). Increase the heat to medium-high and fry the second side for about 4 minutes (or until crispy and golden).
Slide the pancake onto a plate, cut into wedges, and serve. Repeat with the remaining slices to make a second pancake.


To grill a cake:

Nicely cut wedges are not necessary if you are grilling the cake. Use a knife to quarter the cake, then cut each quarter into 1/2-inch thick slices.
Lightly brush or spray the broader surfaces of the cake with enough oil to keep them from sticking to the grill. A charcoal grill or propane grill will give the cakes a light and even crust.
Note:
To refresh a thawed banh chung, bring it to room temperature. Rewrap it in foil and tie it with twine as you did with the original assembly. Boil the cake in a large pot of water for 1 hour, adding water as needed to keep the cake submerged. Remove the cake and let cool for 1 to 2 hours before eating.

Wooden Frame
The frame used to form these cakes is not commercially produced because people typically make the frame themselves. The finished frame should have a 12.7 cm (5-in) square opening and stand 5 cm (2 in) high. Start with a length of unfinished oak, 80x5x2 cm (30" x 2" x 3/4"). Cut the wood into 4 pieces—2 pieces should be 13x5x2 cm. (5" x 2" x 3/4") and 2 pieces should be 16.5x5x2 cm. (6-1/2" x 2" x 3/4"). Drill two holes on the 5cm (2")-face ends of each of the longer pieces (that's 4 holes total per long piece). Screw the pieces together and secure with wood glue. To finish the frame, lightly sand the edges.