By Adrian Ɖặng Bảo Oánh
Bánh dầy and bánh chưng are the two kinds of cakes prepared by the Vietnamese folks predominantly during the time of the Lunar New Year that they call Tết. These offerings date back to the ancient times of the eighth generation of the first royal dynasty in the Vietnamese history. These two dishes are delicious; therefore they are popular and are still being made and offered to this date. Besides being palatable, bánh dầy and bánh chưng have historical values, and they have become a part of the Vietnamese tradition.
The Hùng Vương Dynasty was the first to start building the foundation for the country of Vietnam, nearly five thousand years ago. There were 18 generations or kingdoms in this dynasty. Each generation or kingdom would carry the common name of Hùng Vương, differentiated only by the sequential number, for example: The 5th Hùng Vương Kingdom. The king of each kingdom would pass it down to his heirs, usually the most talented or deserving prince in order to maintain the royal family name. It was a common belief that kings were godsends from heaven. Sometimes people addressed to their king as the Son of God. Therefore, the king’s family was very much like the “holy family” descended from heaven to help the people.
Toward the end of the 6th Hùng Vương Kingdom, it was time for the ruler to carefully select and assign a successor among his princes to rule over the country. All the princes were talented, so the king must come up with a way to decide who would be the next king to inherit the throne.
One day, the king called all of his princes into a solemn meeting so he could give them a common challenge or a “test” to fulfill, and the ultimate prize would be the throne to begin the next kingdom. All princes would have an equal chance in the competition. The king gave them a prescribed amount of time to present to him the most meaningful and delicious dish of prepared food.
The princes set off in quest of the most delicious and meaningful food in hope to win over the throne. The older princes traveled to far places to hunt down what they thought would satisfy the king’s challenge. The youngest prince, unlike his brothers, would stay in his own country to seek what the local areas would provide. Time was running out. The older brothers already had returned with fancy provisions acquired from all over the world. All of the items consisted of precious, difficult to find, expensive ingredients. There were only a few days left; the youngest prince was still empty-handed. One night, in his dream, the youngest prince saw a genie who came to him and gave him advice of how to make his entry with his own two hands. He showed the prince how to use rice, an item that was abundant and grown by the people in the kingdom to make two kinds of cakes. The first cake will be called Bánh Chưng. It shall be made in a square-shaped block to represent the Earth. The outside was cooked rice; the stuffing was also prepared using locally raised ingredients such as beans and pork; the entire cake was then wrapped in green banana leaves which also grew in abundance locally.
The other kind of cake was more like a dumpling, a base food such as bread to be used with other food. This was to be named Bánh Dầy. This dumpling shall take on a circular shape that was flattened. The whole circular dumpling would average about three inches in diameter and flattened to about three-quaters-inch thick. The dumplings were also wrapped in banana leaves, and they were typically wrapped in pairs. Each serving would have two Bánh Dầy wrapped together so the consumer could put any suitable stuffing in the middle, the like of a hamburger. Bánh Dầy was plain and simple, but the beauty lay in the way the rice powder was processed to give this dumpling an amazing sticky texture, a delicious taste, and such an alluring aroma. The round shape was meant to represent the blue dome over our heads, the sky or “the heavens.” The duo of Bánh dầy and Bánh Chưng are, to this day, referred to as the “Heaven and Earth” cakes. They honor and praise God, the creator of all things.
On the day King Hùng Vương the Sixth must judge the entrees, he was not impressed by the delicacies that the older princes brought. They were merely expensive, extravagant items that carried with them no meanings, and they were simply bought from other people around the world. There were no originality to them. King Hùng Vương the Sixth was delighted when he was presented with and tasted the Bánh dầy and Bánh Chưng, the Heaven and Earth cakes. They were delicious; they were meaningful, they were lovingly prepared by the youngest prince. And also, the ingredients were readily available locally, and the people could easily learn to make and enjoy Bánh dầy and Bánh Chưng. The king deemed that his youngest prince had his heart, his mind, and his spirit in the proper places in order to lead the people of the kingdom for the next generation.
Bánh Chưng is about eight inches square on top as well as bottom. It is about three inches thick. Unopened, it is wrapped in green banana leaves with two strands of strings going around the cake in each direction from side to side to keep the whole package tightly wrapped. The cake feels solid and weighs approximately two pounds. When unwrapped, the outer layer looks green from being wrapped in banana leaves. It serves as a natural and healthy food coloring, and it does add to the flavor of the cake. The outer layer is sticky rice, about an inch thick, and it provides an aromatic flavor of sticky rice and banana leaves. The original stuffing is usually yellow beans and pork. This layer is normally an inch-to-inch and a half thick. It complements the outer layer that wraps around the cake. Those who can afford to will sometimes eat side items with Bánh Chưng such as shredded pork, meat loaf, leeks, or other items. But Bánh Chưng is plenty delicious by itself.
There is a derivative of Bánh Chưng in South Vietnam called Bánh Tét. It is, in essence, Bánh Chưng in cylindrical shape. People also make quite a few of these cakes for Tết
Bánh Dầy is much simpler as compared to Bánh Chưng. Typically, the consumer will find a pair of Bánh Dầy in each wrapped unit. It is like the two halves of a hamburger bun. The package is loosely contained by two squares of banana leaves, one on the bottom, and one over the top. These round-shaped dumplings are about three inches in diameter. The consumer peels off the banana leaves wrapper and uses the dumpling much like the halves of the hamburger buns. People eat Bánh Dầy mostly with meat loaf in the center. Sometimes good quality Bánh Dầy are eaten plain to enjoy the natural flavor that they offer. As mentioned above, the beauty of Bánh Dầy lies in the way the rice powder is processed to give it the proper texture, the natural aroma of sticky rice, and the amazing taste of fresh rice powder. Nothing fancy, but Bánh Dầy is amazingly delicious. The danger here is the over-consumption of Bánh dầy!
Try some Bánh Dầy and Bánh Chưng this Tết if you have not already done so!