Tag Archives: vietnamese food

Banh Chung, a New Year’s Tradition

Chuc Mung Nam Moi! Happy New Year!

fullsizeoutput_474bWhen I was kid, a large part of my mother’s side of the family lived in Virginia. Our close knit Vietnamese clan would gather with great fanfare for the Lunar New Year. My cousins and I would line up to recite our new year’s wishes in our native tongue to my grandparents. Crossing our arms and bowing, we’d take turns, “Happy New Year! I wish you continued health, happiness and great wealth! May you live a long life!”

Ba Ngoai, my maternal grandmother, was always dressed in a beautiful silk traditional Vietnamese dress (ai do). Her gray hair pulled back in a neat chignon; her ears adorned with flat, round jade earrings with diamonds in the center. My grandfather, Ong Ngoai, wore a neat, brown wool suit. They sat together on comfortable armchairs in the center of the living room.

My parents, aunts and uncles flanked us with photo and video cameras. They cheered us on when we made our wishes and received our prized lucky red envelope full of money. Occasionally, peals of laughter erupted from the adults when one of us flubbed a word—being second generation, our Vietnamese was, and is, less than stellar—or expanded upon the traditional wish, “… I hope you have great wealth so you can share it with me!”

These warm family gatherings always included mountains of food. One of my favorite Tet (Lunar New Year’s) dishes is Banh Chung, a traditional sticky rice cake filled with mung bean and pork belly, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked. It’s time consuming to make, and seemed to only appear during this time of year. My grandparents made ours in their small apartment kitchen. Ong Ngoia used square wood frames that he’d made himself to shape them. Large pots would boil for hours to cook the square cakes, steaming up their home.

My grandparents lived a long life, as we wished for them. They eventually passed, surrounded by loved ones, and the Banh Chung that they shared with us in my childhood passed with them. So, a couple of years ago, I started to experiment with different recipes I found online. The ingredients are simple: banana leaves, marinated pork, mung bean and sweet rice. I like mine with loads of filling. Most that you can buy are rice heavy. The proportions below reflect my preferences. I like to soak my rice in coconut water. It’s not traditional, but it imparts subtle flavor that complements the banana leaves.

Building the cakes is a little more complicated, so I’ve included step-by-step photos. You’ll find YouTube videos of people free-hand building them. Ha! I tried that; it’s not as easy as it looks. It takes a lot of experience and dexterity to achieve a good looking banh. If your leaves are too soft, the whole thing will fall apart before you can tie it or wrap it together. It may end up looking like a blob. However, I’ve found a good ‘cheat’ that will make your life much easier. I use a square container lined with foil. I hope it helps you as it’s helped me.

Our family has now expanded and scattered across the world, so we no longer have these large gatherings for Tet. But my cousins and I are still very close, and our daily conversations always return to food. Banh Chung is an important topic this time of year: Where will you get yours? Can you send me one that you made? Recipe?

This one goes out to my family, and especially my cousins. Although we’re passing out red envelopes to our own children now, I’m glad that our love of food always keeps our conversations going and our mouths salivating. Chuc mung nam moi! Wishing you wealth, health and happiness, and a belly full of Banh Chung!

Banh Chung
Makes 4

2 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. black pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1/2 Tbsp. honey
1 lbs. pork belly, cut in to 1/4″ thick, 2″ x 2″ pieces
4 cups sweet rice
4 cups coconut water
1 Tbsp. salt
1 1/2 cups mung bean (12oz bag)
banana leaves

The night before:

  1. In medium bowl, mix first 4 ingredients together, add pork and marinade overnight
  2. Rinse rice until water is clear, drain and in large bowl, soak in coconut water overnight
  3. Rinse mung bean until water is clear and cover with water (water should rise 1″ above beans) in large bowl to soak overnight
  4. Clean banana leaves by soaking and rinsing
  5. Cut a letter size sheet of paper down to 8.5″x8.5″ to make template
  6. Using scissors make 16 pieces (you’ll need 4 of these for each cake) of 8.5″ x 8.5″ banana leaves. Fold them down to 4.25″ square. Cut and additional four 3″ banana leaves squares. Dry with paper towels, wrap or store in plastic bag and refrigerate until ready to use.


Note: I like to divide my rice, meat and mung bean into 4 even portions for each cake. I’ve tried figuring out cup measurements for each cake, but it changes depending on how long the rice soaks etc. I’ve accidentally shortchanged the last assembled piece before. This makes it a lot easier.
  1. Drain rice completely and mix with salt and divide into 4 portions.
  2. Drain mung bean and divide in to 4 portions
  3. Divide pork into 4 portions, setting aside leftover marinade for use
  4.  Cut eight 18″ long pieces of aluminum foil
  5. Line a 4″x4″ or a little bigger square cake pan or container (I use a square glass Pyrex style) container with a sheet of foil, lenght-wise
  6. Unfold a banana leaf square and refold into a box corner like so:
  7. Insert into foiled lined mold, lining piece up with corner:
  8. Repeat for each corner until you’ve created a box. Pictured here with 2 corners:
  9. Fill the bottom of the banana leaf box with 1/3 of 1 portion of the rice and push the rice with a spoon to the side to make a 1/4-1/2″ lip, while maintaining rice at the bottom to make an inset for mung beans:
  10. Put 1/2 of one portion of mung bean on top of rice, leaving 1/4″-1/2″ around the edges
  11. Top with portioned pork and 1/4 of leftover marinade (marinade and pork fat will help to flavor the mung beans):
  12. Fill edges with 1/3 of portioned rice, scooting the rice with a spoon to make a little well around pork for mung beans:
  13. Fill well and top pork with the other half of the mung bean, leaving a 1/2″ around beans for rice:
  14. Fill edges with rice and cover mung bean with remainder of rice:
  15. Top with a piece of the square leaf:
  16. Fold in edges of banana leaf box and tightly fold foil over:
  17. Invert over another sheet of foil and wrap tightly:
  18. Tie cakes together with kitchen twine, string wrapped around once on each side (like a gift)
  19. When all cakes are made, cover as many as will fit in your pot with water in your Instant Pot or traditional pressure cooker
  20. For Instant pot cook on high pressure for 1 hour 30 minutes and keep warm (natural release) for another 1 hour 30 minutes.
    For pressure cooker, follow instructions to secure cover and bring to highest pressure. Over the lowest heat on your stove to maintain pressure, cook for 2 hours and 10 minutes
  21. Follow manufacturer instructions to release pressure from your Instant Pot or traditional pressure cooker
  22. Pull cakes out with tongs, letting them drain for a minute and set on rimmed cookie sheets to cool for 2 hours
  23. Unfoil and tightly wrap with Saran wrap, patting cakes back into square shape. Refrigerate until ready to serve

To serve banana leaves are removed and typically cakes are sliced and pan fried in a little oil (right photo) and served with Vietnamese pickled vegetables and a little fish sauce to dip. We’ve been known to eat them warm, an hour after cooling (left photo). Not very traditional, as the cake doesn’t hold it’s shape, but we love the soft, almost gooey tender rice and fall-apart fatty pork and the soft savory mung beans. 



Lastly, a tip from my mother: wrap your knife in a layer of plastic wrap when cutting. Your slices will come out sharply cut and your knife easy to clean. Enjoy!

A Taste of Saigon: Warm Beef and Watercress Salad

Beef Watercress SaladOne of the most memorable meals from our trip to Vietnam last year was at a restaurant called Cu Gach Quan (translates to ‘piece of brick’) in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).  The company was wonderful: Billy, my cousin Michelle and her husband Vinh. The restaurant was eclectic, but authentic. The cuisine was familiar and delicious Vietnamese comfort food, served on charming mismatched hand-made plates and bowls, with little dipping dishes of blue and white porcelain full of nuac mam (Vietnamese dipping sauce) and soy sauce. Fried tofu with crunchy garlic was served alongside sautéed local greens, braised sweet and spicy clay pot fish, brown rice and what turned out to be our favorite dish of the evening: bo xao sa lat song or warm beef and watercress salad.

Hot, garlicky, stir fried beef served on top cool peppery dressed watercress with tomatoes and marinated onion slivers. Delicious! Since traveling to Vietnam every time we craved this dish was not practical, I questioned our waiter and promised Michelle I’d come up with a recipe replicating this dish for us. Below, you’ll find what I came up with based on our server letting us in on the main marinade ingredients: garlic, lime and fish sauce.

If you ever find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, I highly recommend you have at least one meal at Cu Gach Quan. Be sure to go to the original. We hear it’s better. They’re so popular, they opened one directly across the streetyes, really! In the meantime, try this recipe at home. It’s perfect with a bowl of jasmine rice.

Warm Beef and Watercress Salad (Bo Xao Sa Lat Song)
Serves 2-4 people

Stir fry beef
3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
½ tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. rice wine
1 lb. of thinly sliced beef, I prefer skirt steak, sirloin flap or hanger
1-2 Tbsp. of canola oil
3 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 tsp. sugar
1/4  tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced (1/8″)
1 bunch watercress, washed
1 medium tomato, halved and slice

Garnish (optional)
fried garlic bits
fresh cracked pepper

  1. Mix first 5 ingredient together, stir in beef, allow to marinate, refrigerated for between 30 minutes to 2 hours
  2. About 10-20 minutes before serving, in a small bowl, mix sugar, salt, pepper, lime juice and olive oil together.
  3. Add onions to dressing. Do not let onions sit in marinate for more than 30 minutes, it will get too soft.
  4. Toss watercress in onion dressing.
  5. On a serving plate, layer watercress, then tomato slices on the outer edges of plate. The hot beef will go in the center of dish, on top of watercress. Avoid placing hot beef on tomatoes as they will get soft and lose their bite.
  6. Heat canola oil in wok over high heat until very hot.
  7. Add minced garlic, stir fry for 30 seconds.
  8. Add beef with marinate and stir fry for 3-5 minutes or until beef is cooked through.
  9. Serve beef over watercress, topped with pan sauce.
  10. Sprinkle with fried garlic and a few crack of fresh pepper.

A Comforting Bowl of Vietnamese Beef Stew (Bo Kho)

stewWinter inspires stews. This dish is one that I grew up with. An Asian beef stew with lemongrass, star anise, cinnamon and even a little curry for seasoning. Every Vietnamese family I know has their own version of it. Some like the sauce almost broth-like and served over rice noodles, garnished with cilantro, Thai basil and jalapeño slices. Others like it plain, with a side of baguette. Try the combination that suits your palate best.

I prefer my sauce thicker and a little more intense. After it’s cooked, I let my stew sit overnight in the refrigerator. This allows the flavors to meld into the tender beef and veggies and for the fat to separate and harden. I discard the latter before I reheat it. I find that it the fat doesn’t really add anything and dilutes the flavor. I serve mine in a shallow bowl, with a few Thai basil leaves and french bread for dipping.

Half a dozen years ago, a craving for Bo Kho struck me and I called my mom long distance to Vietnam for instructions. It was dictated to me in our traditional family way, with ingredients being approximated—a little of this, a dash of that— and, of course, I was told to taste and re-taste. Over the years, I dialed in the ingredients and proportions and kept notes of my changes and the result is the recipe below.

Vietnamese Beef Stew (Bo Kho)
Serves 4-6

2 whole star anise
2 1.5” pieces of whole cinnamon
2 Tbsp. vegetable or canola oil
3 medium shallots, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks lemongrass, 2″ pieces, bruised
2 to 2 ½ lbs. beef chuck roast or pot roast cut into 2” cubes
2 tsp. curry powder (Vietnamese style preferable)
4 bay leaves
1-6 oz. can tomato paste
3-5 Tbsp. hoisin Sauce (according to taste)
4 medium carrots, cut into 1” pieces
2 medium turnips, cut into 1.5” pieces
Beef broth
Salt, pepper, white wine vinegar and honey to taste
Thai Basil to garnish

  1. Toast cinnamon and star anise. I do it directly on my flat top electric on high heat, very carefully, until darkened. It takes less than 2 minutes. You can also use a hot pan over high heat. Set aside when done.
  2. In large pot (I use a Dutch oven) over medium-high heat, add oil, shallots, garlic and lemongrass, cook for 1-2 minutes until shallots are transparent.
  3. Reserve one piece of lemongrass, you’ll use at the very end to freshen up the lemony flavor of the stew.
  4. Add beef to pot, season with salt, pepper and half of curry powder. Cook, stirring intermittently, until beef is browned.
  5. Add just enough broth to cover beef. Stir in ¾ of tomato paste and 3 Tbsp. of hoisin sauce. Add bay leaves, 1 star anise and 1 cinnamon stick (you’ll add the remaining anise and cinnamon at the end to give the flavor a pop).
  6. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and let simmer for 1 ½ hours.
  7. You can check flavor and re-season according to taste after the first 30 minutes. Sparingly add salt, pepper, hoisin sauce, honey (1 tsp at a time), vinegar (a dash at a time for acidity) tomato paste and curry powder as needed. If you’re re-seasoning throughout the simmering process, let flavors develop for 15 minutes before re-tasting.
  8. Check beef for tenderness. Beef should be close to desired tenderness before vegetables are added. If beef is not as tender as wanted, cover and simmer for an additional 15-30 minutes.
  9. Add carrots, turnips and additional broth if liquid does not cover veggies. Cover and cook for an additional 30 minutes or until vegetables tender.
  10. Let stew cool to room temperature and refrigerate overnight.
  11. About half an hour before serving, remove as much coagulate fat from the top of the stew as you can (or leave it – up to you).
  12. Add reserve cinnamon, star anise and lemongrass and bring to a low simmer over medium heat. Let simmer for at between 15-30 minutes to warm through and to steep the newly added spices. Remove the cinnamon and anise after a few minutes if you feel the flavors are getting too intense for your taste.
  13. Serve topped with basil and with fresh baguette slices.