Every country or ethnic group all over the world has their own traditional dishes of their nations. And each dish has a meaning and contains a distinct character. In Vietnam, there is a traditional course which is both original and nutritious and was attached to the age-old legend of Vietnamese nation. Banh Chung (square shape) and Banh Day(round shape) are simple food but bring along profound thought about universe and human life.
According to Yin and Yang philosophy (originating from China; Yin is negative while Yang is positive), Banh Chung has a square shape of the earth, containing green colour of life and prosperity – that is negative; on the contrary, Banh Dayis round-shaped, has white colour of glutinous rice and symbolises for the heaven – that is positive. And as Vietnamese conception, “square – round” is always a very good thing.
Banh Chung and Banh Dayare considered as solemn and noble dishes of Vietnamese nation. Vietnamese people always suppose that Banh Chung, negative, symbolises for Mother whilst Banh Day, positive, is a symbol of Father. Therefore, they are used in worship the ancestors, grandparents, earth and heaven in order to express the “when drinking water, remember its source” spirit of Vietnamese that indicates the gratitude to parents’ giving birth and bringing up which are as immense and heavy as the firmament and ocean.
Until now, Banh Chung and Banh Dayare the only dishes recorded in Vietnamese history. The legend has it that they appeared from the 6th reign of King HUng Vuong, after expelling An warriors. The King intended to pass the throne to one of his sons on the occasion of spring. He gathered all his sons and said: “Who can find out delicious dish which has thoughtful meaning to display on the banquet, I will give my throne”.
The sons raced against each other to find out tasty foods and uncommon things with the hope of becoming the king. The 18th son of the 6th Hung Vuong, Lang Lieu (his proper name is Tiet Lieu), who had grateful and good-natured personality, was very worried about this as his mother had passed away and no one could give him advice. One night, he dreamed and met Lamp Genie who told him: “In the heaven and earth, there is nothing as precious as rice which is the main source raising human beings. Hence, take glutinous rice to make round and square cakes to be symbolic for Heaven and Earth. Then cover them with leaves and put core inside to imply the giving birth merit of parents”.
Lang Lieu woke up and was delighted about that. He immediately did as what the Saint said. He chose type of glutinous rice, good green peas and fresh half fat and half lean pork.
On the due date, all the sons brought their salvers full of mountainous delicacy and sea tastes. Different from the others, Lang Lieu only had “Banh Day- Banh Chung”. The king took it as a surprise and asked; Lang Lieu then told the king about the dreaming story. The king tasted cakes, found it very delicious and praised their meanings. As a consequence, he gave his kingship to Lang Lieu, the 7th Hung Vuong.
Since that event, on every Lunar Year’s Tet or wedding and funeral, the common people imitated the way of making cakes. Gradually, it has become a custom in worship the ancestors, heaven and earth.
Banh Chung, a unique cake which is uncommonly tasty but only made from very simple materials that are easy to find. Without discriminating regions, at everywhere in Vietnam, people can find out stuffs to make cakes. Banh Chung is cooked from glutinous rice, green peas and pork and is parcelled in Phrynium’s leaves. Rice is the symbol of the wet rice and tropical culture which brings along strongly the characteristics of Vietnamese nation. Besides, pork is supposed to be the most gentle kind of meat and green peas are both sweet-taste and nutritious. Put all these stuffs together and intermingle them, we can create a dish whose flavour is great, fragrant and good for health.
Because the cake is covered with phrynium leaves, it looks green and has more sweet smell than banana leaves. The cake must be packed closely and water must not be allowed to enter in order to have good cakes. The bamboo strings ought to be tight; otherwise, the cake will not be as delicious as expected. Nevertheless, if it is too tight, the cake is also impossible to give you the best taste.
Time to cook this type of cake is rather long, maybe more than 10 hour, so that grains of glutinous rice would be well-cooked and stuck together. It is much different from cooking Xoi (steamed rice). Due to cooking in such a very long time, the stuffs like pork which must be half fat and half lean, rice and peas can be over-done. And they have enough time to give out all their quintessence, making a collective flavour for cake. Inside the recipe is a philosophy of harmonious life of Vietnamese community.
People who have experienced the older Tet holidays (in the 40s – 50s of the previous century) often recall about traditional Tet holidays with Banh Chung that was made from meticulous choices in all materials. In the atmosphere of these Tet holidays, people no longer see the scenes of women and girls hurrying in wash phrynium leaves, soaking glutinous rice and flay green peas, or the scene in which children eagerly watched their parents packing cakes and all the families staying up late to watch the cake pot among warm the atmosphere of charcoal. However, although time is passing by and the country is now integrating more and more into the global environment, the traditional customs will never be lost in the hearts of Vietnamese people. And though the Tet holidays’ atmosphere of cooking Tet’s cakes is not as bustling as in the old days, the traditional dish “Banh Chung” always appears on the altar worshipping the forefathers of each family. It is an indispensable object of the nation.