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Bánh Pía: The Dreamy Mooncake Alternative With a Side of Teochew History

From sweet treats such as yam paste, chè bạch quả (ginkgo soup) and bite-size pastries to savory staples such as lotus root soup, bánh củ cải (radish cake), cốn xại (pickles) and xá pấu (salted radish) eaten with rice congee, links to my family's Teochew roots were made and consumed through food, both in everyday life and during festive occasions. 

While the typical bánh trung thu (Cantonese mooncake), one with a chewy baked crust and paste-based filling, is the most common baked good associated with the celebration of Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam, in many Mekong Delta provinces such as Bac Lieu, Soc Trang or Ca Mau, bánh pía is the delicacy more often eaten during moon worship. This is thanks to the influence of Teochew pastry traditions in the southern regions' gastronomy.

Bánh pía, sometimes called bánh bía or bánh lột da, is structurally similar to the Cantonese mooncake, but differs in the type of crust and fillings. The crust is flaky and resembles a puff pastry, except the layers are thinner and chewier, while making the crust requires two types of dough stitched together: bột nước (wet dough) and bột dầu (oily dough), both of which are brushed with lard. Bánh pía's fillings are often made with a mung bean paste mixed with caramelized lard, glutinous rice flour and durian flesh. These deviations make the pastry more tender and creamy. 

The inside of bánh pía is filled with lard and durian flesh. Photo via Am Thuc Sinh Vien.

Having spent most of my life in Saigon, bánh pía has always been a breath of fresh air among the smorgasbord of mooncakes my family often receivew during mid-autumn. Yet one can never have too much bánh pía, as one bite is sweet enough to overwhelm any hint of bitterness lingering on the tongue, which is why age-old wisdom dictates that bánh pía cannot be enjoyed thoroughly without a cup of tea.

The geographic location mostly associated with bánh pía is Soc Trang, a peripheral province of southern Vietnam home to a large community of people of Khmer and Chinese descent. Bánh pía is also popular in neighboring provinces such as Bac Lieu and Ca Mau. It's hard to determine exactly when bánh pía first appeared in southern Vietnam, although many informal sources suggest it came to the region during the first major wave of Chinese migration.

Ming Royalists on the Coast of Southern Vietnam

Southern Vietnam has long been a melting pot of different cultures and ethnic groups. Revitalized from the ashes of the Phu Nam (Funan) states, whose history and identity is still up for historical debate, then succeeded by the Chan Lap (Chenla) Kingdom, the region was mostly populated by Khmer people until the 17th century. From then on, Vietnamese peasants and craftsmen from the north, who were forced to leave the area by the Trinh-Nguyen war, migrated south for a new future.

These Vietnamese peasants were not alone. During the late 17th century, a large wave of Ming royalists from southern China sought refuge in Mekong provinces after the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchus and replaced by the Qing era. In Folk Culture of Vietnamese in Southern Vietnam, the authors divided this wave into three groups: a group led by Duong Ngan Dich and Tran Thuong Xuyen in 1679 included 3,000 Chinese residing in modern-day Bien Hoa and My Tho; another group including 200 people led by Mac Cuu settled in Ha Tien in 1680; while the third set included many poor coastal residents of parts of southern China such as Chaozhou (Teochew), Fujian (Hokkien), Guangdong and Hainan. A common folk poem about Bac Lieu portrays the large number of Teochews there:

Bạc Liêu là xứ cơ cầu,

dưới sông cá chốt trên bờ Triều Châu.


Bac Lieu is the land of austerity

chốt fishes in the river and Teochews on the bank.

Bac Lieu during the 1920s. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

The Chinese immigrants were often men, who later married Khmer and Vietnamese women and settled down. Although these marriages seemed to be a merge between two cultures, Barbara Watson Andaya points out in The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia that many local wives were expected to act "Chinese," while the children of these marriages had to showcase their fathers' identity. This worked to orient these families toward a Chinese identity instead of Khmer or Vietnamese one.

As noted in Water Frontier: Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880, the openness of the Nguyen dynasty towards these Chinese immigrants, combined with the Qing dynasty loosening restrictions on Chinese returning to the country, helped attract more Chinese sojourners and merchants. The region became a bustling trading hub, especially when it came to rice. The riverine ports of the Mekong Delta brought in tea, farming tools, clothing and porcelain from China; and exported spices, sugar, dried shrimps and rice to China, Thailand and Singapore. 

Yet, the Chinese community in southern Vietnam was far from monolithic, which is why, for administrative convenience, the Nguyen Dynasty divided them into official and formal groupings based on their dialects and the provinces they originally came from. This "divide and rule" administrative style was reinforced under French colonial rule in the form of congregations.

Each subbranch of the Chinese diaspora then specialized in one or two types of commodities in the trade network. The Teochews, largely congregated in modern-day Bac Lieu, Soc Trang and Ca Mau controlled the tea trade and had great influence in the sugar trade, as noted in Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century. Perhaps this concentration of demographics and cultures is the reason why the presence of Teochew dialects and culture are felt strongly in certain provinces of the Mekong Delta even today, when the process of localization has been underway for generations. 

A clear artifact of this lies in the everyday dialect of Vietnamese. Chế and hia are common pronouns to address an older sister and older brother, respectively, in a southern Vietnamese family. Binh Nguyen Loc argues that these pronouns are the Vietnamization of hia(n) 兄 and ze/che 姊 in Southern Min Chinese, of which the Teochew dialect is a variant. Recently chế even found its way to internet lexicon as a way of mimicking the vernacular southern dialect, as well as the frank modesty of a southern commoner.

Similar to language, Teochew food traditions are also an integral part of southern Vietnam's cultural identity, expressed through both everyday cooking and food consumption during festive celebrations.

Teas, Kuehs and Confectioneries

Tea holds a special place in Teochew gastronomy. In An Introduction to The Culture and History of Teochews in Singapore, Tan Gia Lim emphasized that tea is part of every Teochew's daily ritual. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, as mentioned above, the Teochew people controlled the tea trade.

Teochew-influenced kuehs and confectionary can be found in the provinces of Bac Lieu, Soc Trang and Ca Mau. Bánh ít trần nhân ngọt bears resemblance to many Teochew steamed rice cakes, while bánh bò xốp's similarity to huat kueh, a steamed cupcake-like pastry, is uncanny. One also can't help but draw a connection from mè xửng and Teochew peanut candy. Several bánh in southern Vietnam even have Peranakan and Malay influences: the southern Vietnam version of bánh bông lan looks similar to kuih bahulu, while kuih tair and its coconut version are my favorites gifts from the Mekong Delta.

Molds for making kuehs and confectioneries my mom kept throughout the years. Photo by Thi Nguyen.

Bánh pía today stands out among many Chinese-influenced confectioneries and kuehs thanks to its ubiquity not just in Soc Trang or places that have a large Teochew community, but also across the country. During mid-autumn, the cake is often accompanied by bánh in, a white, round rice flour cake filled with either mung beans or taro, resembling the appearance of the moon. 

The cake is a testament to a historical and ongoing process of cultural encounters, localization and globalization. The addition of the durian, a fruit native to Southeast Asia, instead of just a bean paste, shows how local tastes and availability of ingredients can shape and change food culture. 

Soc Trang is now the most prominent manufacturer and exporter of bánh pía. Traveling down to the Mekong Delta from Saigon, it's hard to miss the large complex belonging to the province's most famous bánh pía brand that hosts several buildings resembling Chinese citadels. At the gate lies a big bánh pía replica. Inside, the complex boasts an exhibition space, an ancestral shrine and a large shop displaying rows and rows of neatly packed bánh pía

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