Lunar New Year: Rice Cakes

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

It’s Lunar New Year this weekend, my first Lunar New Year at home in seven years. Back in LA, I did have some sort of celebration every year, but it could never compare to actually being at home for it – the bustling streets filled with peach blossoms and kumquat trees, the nippy cold (it’s been annoyingly warm these last two weeks, but as luck would have it, it’s going to cool down tomorrow), the smell of incense in the air, the excitement of preparing food and decorating the house… It’s better than Christmas, because with Christmas even when you’re not with your family you can still feel the atmosphere, but with Lunar New Year, you pretty much have to be in the country where it’s widely celebrated (Chinatown doesn’t count) to get the truest sense of the holiday.

Anyway, one of my favorite traditions of the Lunar New Year is the making of rice cakes (bánh chưng). It’s a cake made of sticky rice, mung bean paste, and pork, wrapped in arrowroot leaves and boiled. It may sound simple, but there are a lot of little details involved, from the quality of the ingredients to how you wrap and boil the cakes, to get the perfect rice cakes – everything tender but not mushy, the rice green from the arrowroot leaves, the bean paste bright yellow, the pork cooked through but still pink. Here is how my family makes our rice cakes (it’s not an actual recipe because everything is eyeballed, but I thought it’d be fun to share with you guys):

arrowroot leaves by 14 shades of greyarrowroot leaves by 14 shades of grey

sticky rice by 14 shades of grey

pork by 14 shades of grey

What You Need:
– Three parts sticky rice, one part mung beans, one part fatty pork (we usually do 6 kg of rice; 3 cups of rice per cake)
– Fish sauce, salt, pepper, onions or shallot
– Arrowroot leaves (you need at least four per cake), bamboo strings

Instructions:
1. Soak the rice and the beans up to 12 hours. Let dry, salt them well. Cut the pork into two-inch pieces. Marinate the pork in fish sauce, pepper, and onions.

2. Steam the beans, mash them into a paste (it looks a lot like mash potatoes actually.)

3. Now you’re ready to wrap the cake! There are a lot of ways to wrap a rice cake, but since the cakes have to be a perfect square, most people like to most a mold. My dad usually cuts the arrowroot leaves (carefully washed and dried) and folds them into a box. It’s a little more complicated than using a mold, but it’s easier to wrap once you get the box shape down. Put in a cup of rice, then a layer of bean paste, a couple of pieces of pork, followed by another layer of bean paste and another layer of rice. Make sure that the leaves are touching the rice on the right side, or the cake won’t be green enough. Fold the tops of your “box” down and secure it with bamboo strings.

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of greyIt’s much more difficult to wrap it like this, without a mold or shaping the leaves into a box first

4. You can also wrap the cakes the Southern way – simply lay down the leaves, put the ingredients on top, and roll it all up into a cylinder. But then it’s called bánh tét instead of bánh chưng.

rice cakes by 14 shades of greyrice cakes by 14 shades of grey

5. Put your cakes into a cauldron that’s been lined with more arrowroot leaves, put in enough water to cover them, and boil them. The boiling time depends on how many cakes you have, of course, but with 20 cakes, we always have to boil them for at least 12 hours. The cauldron is important too – cauldrons made out of zinc are best because they keep the leaves green (as you can see below); aluminum will turn them an unappetizing brownish yellow.

rice cakes cauldron by 14 shades of greyrice cakes by 14 shades of grey
No, that’s not some witch’s cauldron

And that’s about it. We’ve only cut one of the mini cakes my dad made for my niece from leftovers, saving the big ones for the Lunar New Year feast on Monday, but as far as we can tell, they all turned out perfectly. OK, I’m off to finish cleaning up, so have a great weekend everybody! I know I will.

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3 Comments on “Lunar New Year: Rice Cakes”

  1. Megan says:

    Wow, never seen anything like that! Very cool.

  2. […] for the last three days or so. We had kind of a pre-New Year feast last weekend (when we made the rice cakes), we had one last night (for New Year’s Eve), we had one today (for New Year), and […]

  3. sweetangel says:

    That’s so great. Thank you for sharing. I love Banh chung a lot.


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