Lunar new year exclusive: Step by step guide to making banh chung (Vietnamese square sticky rice cakes)
Tomorrow marks the first day of the new year in the lunar calender. Happy Chinese new year / Tết!
As a newly married couple, it’s the first year Zen and I will have to give red packets to kids. Collecting the well wishes and money was one of my most memorable parts of Lunar New Year growing up, so it’s a tradition I’m excited to keep. Another tradition I’m keen to continue is the festive cooking – whether it be peanut cookies, Teochew ang toh kueh, or fried sesame balls.
Always eager to learn new recipes, Mum attended a banh chung making course at last year’s Bankstown Lunar New Year Festival. Banh Chung is considered an indispensable dish of Tết and I don’t recall there ever being a Lunar New Year at home without it.
This year, we were able to make them from scratch!
Wrapped in la dong (related to the arrowroot plant family, these can be found in specialty Asian grocers) or banana leaves, these weighty cakes are square in shape to symbolise the Earth and are commonly made of glutinous rice, mung bean and fatty pork. The fatty pork is where the flavour lies, so don’t substitute this for lean pork.
A sort-of regional variation, in ours, we also added home-brined salted egg yolks, shiitake mushrooms and chestnuts which makes it slightly similar to the Chinese joong/zongzi; I guess this reflects my parents’ upbringing, being Teochew Chinese born in Vietnam.
There are also variations of banh chung for vegetarians and even sweet versions with the pork being replaced with banana or brown sugar.
With many traditions and stories lost during my family’s dispersed migration, wrapping banh chung with Mum gave me a fulfilling sense of connection to my grandparents and their Lunar New Year celebratory efforts.
While I made a mess of the first 3 banh chung I wrapped (Mum had to save them with cling wrap!), the following 10 were as perfect as the store-bought ones. The dong leaves were lined straight all around, the filling was firm and flat, no longer protruding like a beer belly, and the string was tied to even ratio.
Thanks to Mum’s patience with me documenting the entire process from our cooking adventure last weekend, here’s the recipe!
- 2kg sticky uncooked rice
- 1.3kg green uncooked split mung beans, soaked overnight
- 1.5kg pork neck cut into chunks, seasoned with salt, pepper and onion
- 1 bunch dong leaves or banana leaves
- 1 bowl chopped onion
- 8 tbs salt
- 2 tbs sugar
- 13 x 2.5m string
- 2 square molds; recommended 11 x 11 x 4cm in dimensions
- Add 4 tablespoons of salt to the sticky rice, cover with water and soak overnight. Add 2 tablespoons of salt to the mung beans, also cover with water and soak overnight.
- On the next day, drain both the sticky rice and mung beans separately. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of sugar to each. Mix each well and store separately.
- Soak the dong leaves in hot water to soften.
- Trim the dong leaves, removing the tough stem and tip.
- Place a string at the bottom of the mold. Place two leaves number 1 & 2 in one direction, slightly overlapping to cover the width of the mold.
- Fold them down to crease at the edges. Do the same with leaves 3 & 4 in the opposite direction.
- Cut leaves 5 & 6 in half, fold in a square and place them inside the four corners of the mold.
- (Cut another 2 leaves in half and fit them into the corners again for extra reinforcement if you’re a newb – this helps the banh chung from splitting open when you’re wrapping it later)
- Place 1 bowl of sticky rice on the leaves, ensuring the rice is distributed evenly to the corners.
- Top with 1 cup of mung beans, layer on top with pork or banana, then add another bowl of beans, followed by a bowl of rice.
- Press down with a spoon to condense the filling and ensure the surface is flat.
- Cut 1 dong leaf into thirds and cover the top.
- Carefully place a string at the bottom of the mold and remove the mold.
- Tie the cake firmly with the string, crossing over at the back and moving down 1/3 each time until you’ve formed a grid-like pattern and the leaves are not loose. With the remaining string, connect the first and the last lines to create a handle.
- Place in a large pot, pour hot water to cover the cakes and boil for 3 hours. Add hot water every hour if necessary.
- After 3 hours or so, remove the cakes, submerge them into cold water and wash them one by one for a few minutes. Drain and leave them on a hard and flat surface, weigh them down with something heavy to keep shape, until they are cool.
- To be eaten at room temperature or pan-fried for a crisp crust.
- Recipe variations
- Marinade the pork with a mix of light soy, dark soy, sesame oil and five spice powder for extra fragrance
- Serving suggestions
- Best served with dua mon (Vietnamese pickles)
- The cake should keep for 10 days in the fridge or several months in the freezer
Making banh chung is a two day task and a family effort, but oh, it’s so worth it.
The banh chung were distributed to my siblings the next day and by night, we were all Whatsapping each other photos of them pan-fried for dinner. We all agreed that there was such a depth of flavour in the filling.
I especially love the amazing fragrance in which the dong leaves impart, and the wonderful satisfaction that these were all homemade.
Mum’s photo trumped us all though – she had her own homemade dua mon (pickled radish and carrot) as an accompaniment.
I’ll have to learn to make that next too!
But of course, if you don’t have time to make banh chung from scratch, just look for them at any Vietnamese grocery store. The ones in the above photo were spotted at Cabramatta last weekend.