Photo of the Week — Good Things Come in Small (Banana Leaf) Packages

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.

Kid surrounded by lots of presents

Roar! Gimme 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.

Wrapped with banana leaves and string. Almost like a present, I guess...

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.

No, not this one.

This one.

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!)

Totally NOT endorsed by Emperor Hung the Sixth

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!)

Emperor Hung the Sixth, I'm sorry to say that you HAVE been eliminated from the race.

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.

Square = Earth. My ancestors read it on Wikipedia.

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).

Happy family!

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.

Breakfast of Champions!

Ingredients are simple: glutinous rice wrapped around a filling of boiled mung beans, simple seasoning and pork belly (with all the yummy fatty bits).

Yummmm. Pork belly with 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.

Variations on the theme

What about you? Any foods you love with a special history?

Photo credits: Kid opening presents

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11 thoughts on “Photo of the Week — Good Things Come in Small (Banana Leaf) Packages

  1. Ruth

    Man, you always have the best stories about food! My Vietnamese friends never tell me any of this stuff, I guess you have to do some research or ask the vendors to get to the (mythical) truth! And hilarious analogies, by the way, the old emperor was ahead of his time. 😉
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  2. Jen Ryder

    Great article! You made me hungry, and I laughed the whole way through with your analogies and pictures 🙂 Banana and bamboo leaf wrapped presents are some of the tastiest snacks all over Asia. Lately here in China we have eaten our share of zongzi, gelatinous rice cakes filled with dates or jujubes that are traditionally eaten during the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival (this year on June 23rd, 2012). We’ve been told that you’re supposed to dip them in sugar for each bite, and have taken that advice to heart. I can’t wait to try banh chung in Vietnam!

    1. James Post author

      Hey Jen! They do have dessert style banh chung here (but they’re usually triangular or long and round, not square), filled with bananas (which turn red when you cook them) or coconut. But I think zongzi sounds better! Yummmm. Sugar. *drool*

      1. Fay G

        Mr. Thai – Pham
        You talking about food made with banana leaves.??? That cant beat what we make called Conkies It is a corn-based delicacy/dessert made with cornflour, finely grated pumpkin, coconut, sweet potato (optional) cinnamon, nutmeg, spice, raisins, almond essence sugar and melted margarine. Persons use their variations like milk/eggs. After mixing the ingredients well, the mixture should drop from a spoon onto the banana leaves that had been singed on a naked, open flame. 8″ x8″ or bigger if you desire. It is then steamed in a large saucepan/steamer . Additional info is available on the net, I am sure. That’s it out of my head.
        Must say you are a great story-teller, no matter the content…..

  3. Adrian Thu Le Preston

    love your banh chung article!!!now that i’m a grown up i love banh ch. even more each year, and my son loves the stuff. esp. home made by an aunt or great aunt 🙂 thx for your witty blogs!! your cuz, thu

    1. James Post author

      Hey Thu! Homemade is definitely the best. Once in a while, I’ll come across a banh chung loaded with cashews or some other delectable item which would be too expensive to mass produce. Love when that happens! Thanks for reading!


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