There’s something about unwrapping a package that reduces even the most “adult” of us into a giddy child. Maybe it’s the memories of better, more innocent times. Or just pure, unadulterated joy that seems so hard to come by in later life. Whatever the case, I loves me some presents.
So while I haven’t gotten any real presents in a while (ahem… I’m eyeing a nice iPad case, just in case any readers are feeling generous…) I’m satisfying my inner child by unwrapping lots of presents. The kind wrapped up in banana leaves.
As an added bonus, there’s a great story behind one of these banana leaf wrapped goodies called banh chung.
And for all you attention-deficit, Play Station wielding,Ritalin eating readers out there, I’ll break it down for you Romeo and Juliet style.
There once was a Vietnamese king. (For you history nerds, it was the Emperior Hung the 6th, c. 1712-1632 BCE which seems like an unbelievably long time ago, but hey! everyone knows that Wikipedia does NOT lie. Hear that kids?)
One spring, after he was good and old, having squashed a rival king, he decided it was time to head to Florida and go into retirement. But which of his 18 sons should get the throne?
Being obviously very agile-minded in his old age, he set out a food challenge. (Infringement alert: I think Top Chef ripped off Emperor Hung!)
Whichever prince was able to find the dish that was both delicious and meaningful would inherit the throne. The princes set out to countries far and wide to find this dish. (Infringement alert: I think Amazing Race ripped off Emperor Hung!)
Unfortunately, the youngest prince, Tiet Lieu, who lost his mother at an early age, did not have the means to travel.
But one night, he had an awesome dream. The dream fairy told him that there was nothing more valuable to the people than rice. The fairy then instructed him to make two cakes, one square and one round and long, representing Heaven and Earth.
The fairy (who was obviously a foodie) said to add a filling to the cakes and wrap them in banana leaves to signify parents lovingly taking care of children. (OK, that part’s a stretch, but it was from a FAIRY. And everyone knows that fairies do NOT lie).
On the appointed day, all the princes came in with amazing foods from across the land. When the Emperor got to Tiet Lieu’s humble cakes, at first he didn’t know what to make of them. But once he heard the story of the dream and tasted the cakes, he gave the throne to Tiet Lieu.
So, kids. I guess the lesson is: Don’t work too hard. Wait for the dream fairy to work out all your problems. Enjoy the sweet, sweet throne.
Didn’t like that (true) story? Fine. Here are the details for you serious, story-squashing types…
Banh chung is green and square (usually made in a wood mold), which Asians traditionally relate to the earth. It’s primarily eaten during Vietnamese New Year (in the spring), but now you can find it year-round and they average around VND 20,000 (~USD 1) for each half kilo cake. (If given as a gift, they are usually given in pairs, never singly). Banana-leaf wrapped banh chung make for a decent, albeit heavy, breakfast food, paired with something sour to cut through all that rice, like kim chee or the more traditional Vietnamese pickled white radishes and maybe a dash of soy sauce.
Ingredients are simple: glutinous rice wrapped around a filling of boiled mung beans, simple seasoning and pork belly (with all the yummy fatty bits).
Line the pot of boiling water with extra banana leaves and boil the cakes for 10-12 hours. The cakes are then pressed for another few hours to drain and to maintain their square shape.
Can’t get enough of this humble dish with a history? Well, you missed your chance! According to the Guinness Book of World Records, in 2002, the small northern town of Uoc Le, famous for its banh chung, made a 1.4 ton sticky rice cake, comprised of 330kgs of glutinous rice, 100kgs of mung beans and 1,500 banana leaves. It took 50 people to make and was cooked in a 2 meter high aluminum pot for 72 hours.
What about you? Any foods you love with a special history?
Photo credits: Kid opening presents