During Tết (Luner New Year) this year, I was sick as a dog and desperately craving bánh chưng—a sticky rice cake filled with meat, pork fat, black pepper, and mung bean paste wrapped-up in banana leaves. I couldn’t get my hands on one because the lone Vietnamese grocery store in Philly on Washington Avenue was too far to walk to in my weakened state. Oh, how I yearned…
Growing up, banh chung was always consumed during Tết and was as much a part of the holiday as li xi (gifts of money in red envelopes). My cousins and I called the treat “foot cake,” which is the literal translation of bánh (cake) chưng (foot).
Since my arrival in Saigon, I have developed an obsession of sorts with foot cake due to my deprivation earlier this year. I estimate that I have consumed 5+ cakes in the past three weeks. The bánh chưng in Saigon are a smidge fattier than the ones in the states because they contain more fat than actual meat, but are truly just as good.
While wandering around town during lunch the other day, I found a woman selling bánh chưng (4,000 VND) and banh gio (4,000 VND) and The Astronomer and I decided to have one of each. We sat on some beach chairs lining the sidewalk covered by an awning, while the woman plated our selections. Both the bánh chưng and banh gio are pre-made and ready to eat. Using a sharp knife, she cut through the countless layers of banana leaves to unveil each delight.
The inherent stickiness of the bánh chưng is a turn off for The Astronomer, but I simply adore the cake’s texture and the faint taste of banana leaves ingrained in the rice. The mung bean paste is savory and works beautifully with the pork and rice.
The banh gio, which I learned how to make earlier this summer with my grandma, was really delicious as well. This version was softer in texture than my grandma’s and contained two quail eggs that were especially yummy. Similar to the bánh chưng, the essence of banana leaves seeped into the banh gio adding a layer of complexity.