This is not a recipe post. I am such a disappointment to the poor souls who search for recipes of Viet food. I talk about (and think about) Viet food a lot, but I never really learned to cook it. I certainly have not learned to cook from my mother, who always starts whatever I want to learn about well before I arrive at her house (and this is now complicated by the fact that I am many, many miles from her).
I am, however, (if I say so myself) a pretty good cook and good at guessing flavours and ingredients and muddling along. And I’m reasonably willing to be experimental. So, I’ve taught myself some recipes merely from eating a lot. Now that’s a fantastic way to learn.
My go-to for Viet food recipes is teh internets, but especially Wandering Chopsticks. Often, I read information on her blog that shines a light on things that were part of my history but that I never really thought about or could explain to anyone if they asked. I rarely knew why. Tet has just been and gone and I’m catching up around the blogosphere, and in doing so, I re-read Wandering Chopstick’s post, 3 years past, of her family’s banh tet traditions.
Now, I’m quite sure I call these banh chung and that my family’s have always been cylindrical. But nikkipolani’s post about her own marvellous mother’s marathon cooking session, despite being unwell, made me pause and wonder what I called them. And I did not know for sure, only that I was quite sure we did not call them banh tet.
I’ve never been privy to my family’s banh tet/banh chung making sessions. I remember one pre-tet when I was in high school: I came home from school, doing as I always do – slipped off my shoes at the door and let them fall where they will, tossed my school bag in a heavy heap inside my bedroom and call out to my parents – whereever the were in the house or garden – “Um, Ba! I’ve just got home from school!” The usual reply is, “Child! Is that you?” to which no reply is necessary. The next phase of my after school ritual was to go into the bathroom and wash my feet, then wander into the kitchen scavenging for pre-dinner snacks. I exercised a lot during high school and I ate ridiculous amounts of food all the time. This day, however, when I walked from my bedroom out to the patio area where my parents usually were, I found my grandmother, mother, an aunt and my second-eldest sister perched on little short-legged stools. My mother was mixing rice in a bowl; my grandmother was cleaning banana leaves, my aunt and sister were assembling little green packages. Like the well-behaved child that I rarely was, I greeted my grandmother and aunt properly and dodged around everyone to go up the stairs and into the bathroom. As I ascended the stairs, I saw Ba out in the backyard making up an enormous fire in our rarely used outdoor barbecue. “Ba!” I called out to him, “What are you doing?” He waved at me but did not answer. My sister, however, said, “For banh chung, you idiot.” This, of course, I did not dignify with a response and continued on my merry way to clean feet and satiate tummy.
That is my only memory of when my family made banh tet/chung. It perplexed me then, and it perplexes me still. My mind’s eye has a clear picture of my second-eldest sister adeptly assembling banh tet/chung. I came back after satiating my teenage hunger and sat on the steps watching (and not offering to help). I later wandered over to my father to see if I was allowed to poke and prod at the fire (answer: no).
Of all my sisters, she was the one least likely to do any chores, whether cooking or cleaning . Not that she was lazy, just that the chores never fell to her. The eldest was, with my mother, the family cook. The third-eldest was the one who did major cleans (and who could also be trusted to burn soup). My fourth eldest sister was the everyday cleaner (and unlikely to cook) and I was in charge of the random-(and-if-you-can-be-bothered-to-pin-her-down-and-persuade- her-to-do-them)-chores. But my second-eldest sister was a mystery. I rarely saw her cook; though she (as did we all) chipped in to clean most of the time. And yet, she was incredibly skilled at making banh tet/chung and I learned, regularly called upon by my many aunts to help them make theirs. No wonder I did not see her very often.
Shortly after this tet, my father fell very ill for the first time, so major cooking events rarely happened at our house. They were always held somewhere else, at an aunt’s or an uncle’s place, and I was only called in if soup (chicken & sweet corn and crab & asparagus being my specialties) or cha gio (spring rolls – I was / maybe still am a very fast spring-roller) were on the menu.
Banh tet/chung was not a favourite food of mine. I ate them because I was supposed to and because it was obvious someone (lots of someones) in the family had slaved over the making of them. My mother liked to eat hers sliced and fried, and then dipped in sugar. I don’t think Ba was a fan. By the end of tet, I was heartily sick of them. My family – despite our large numbers – rarely got through more than a couple. My parents now don’t even get through one cylinder. And I have never had a cylinder of banh tet/chung to call my own.