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How It's Made: Bánh Chưng

Much like the peach blossom or the lucky money envelope, bánh chưng is a staple part of Tết.

It is a Vietnamese tradition for families to wrap and cook their own bánh chưng — a tradition that I have never experienced. I have no idea how to make a bánh chưng, and so this year, I want to change that.

My wife came from làng Hồ Khẩu, one of Hanoi's oldest villages. Situated where the Tô Lịch river once met the Westlake, the village was once famous for its paper. But now the river is covered, the water polluted, and the paper craft is lost. Lucky for me, the art of bánh chưng still survives here.

Deep in the twisting alleys of the village, I come to the house of Đinh Thị Hòa. Her family has been making bánh chưng for almost two decades now, and she was happy to have me for a lesson.

Hòa just passed her middle age, yet her spirit is as young and jovial as anyone. Every other sentence of hers is accompanied by laughter. She learned how to make bánh chưng from her parents, who used to tell her: "If you don't make it, then you won't have anything to eat."

Now she supplies bánh chưng for the village. "I do it to serve the community," she laughs. "Now every house is so cramped, nobody has the space to do it. I see people's need and I try to help them." A bánh chưng operation can take a lot of space. And not only does Hòa's house has a yard, hers is big enough for two trees — a roi, or java apple, and a Lêkima — to take roots.

Under the Lêkima's shade, Hòa lays out various buckets and basins. A huge water tank stands nearby, filling two concrete barrels that were once personal bomb shelters. Here is the first workstation I see from the gate — a wet kitchen where all of the bánh chưng's components are prepared before wrapping.

A typical bánh chưng is made up of five things: leaf, rice, green bean, pork, and bamboo strings; each component is meticulously prepared. The leaves have to be soaked for three days then scrubbed clean to prevent mold. The rice and beans are also soaked and washed with multiple waters. Hòa's motto is: "We sell to others as how we would eat it."

Once the rice is cleaned, it is mixed with salt to add flavor. As for the beans, they are steamed then set before a fan to cool. "The beans must be cooled before wrapping," Hòa explains, "otherwise they will sour everything."

The beans fresh out of the steam pot are darker (left) than the cooled ones (right).

The wrapping station is inside the house, where Hoàng Thanh Thái, Hòa's sister-in-law, is in charge. Thái has also been making bánh chưng since she was a kid, she is so adroit that each bánh only takes a few moments to be wrapped. I have to ask her to slow down so I can take a picture of each step of the process.

First she lays down two leaves as the outer layer, on top of which goes a square mold. Then she lines the sides and the bottom of the square with leaves, the greener side facing inward. Then she puts in one bowl of rice as the first layer, next is a scoop of beans, then a piece of pork, another scoop of beans to cover the meat, and one more bowl of rice on top. Afterward she folds the inner leaves to a tight square, then the outer layer is wrapped and tied with the bamboo strings.

After adding the pork, another scoop of beans to cover the meat, and one more bowl of rice on top.

Afterward, fold the inner leaves to a tight square, then wrap the outer layer and tie it with bamboo strings.

Thái is gracious to let me try one. I'm surprised to learn how much force it takes to wrap everything tightly, I also fumble with the strings and have to ask Thái for help. She ties the knots one handedly.

I ask Thái what is the secret to a good bánh chưng. "Oh that's hard," she laughs. "I think there's no secret. We just choose good rice, good beans, and good meat." For rice, her family uses the famous nếp cái hoa vàng. The beans must be crumbly after steaming, and the ideal pork for bánh chưng comes from the pig's belly, which has both lean and fatty parts.

The leaves are important, too. Thái's family uses dong leaves, which is similar to banana leaves but they are found mostly in the forest. The leaves must be of the right age, not too old and not too young, in order to give the bánh chưng its signature color. Her family is making 400 bánh chưng this year, which need 2000 leaves.

"Every year I make a lot more," Thái shares, "but my husband just passed away this year so I make less now." Her husband, Hòa's little brother, was in charge of the third station — boiling — and without him the family can't handle the usual 800 - 1000 orders.

The family boils bánh chưng with wood — the good old fashion way to make bánh chưng dền, which means "supple and delicious". Under the java apple tree, Thái's son lays down some bricks for a makeshift fire pit, then he puts a huge pot on top. The pot can hold 60 - 70 bánh chưng at a time. After stacking the bánh, he fills it with water then his aunt, Hòa, lights the fire.

There are three phases to the boiling process. First, the fire must be roaring to bring the pot to a boil. Then, a stable and constant flame is needed for the pot to simmer for 12 hours. Finally, toward the 10th or 11th hour, the fire is reduced to a smolder.

While the fire crackles merrily, I ask Hòa about Thắng, her little brother. It used to be that each person in the family handled a part of the process: Hòa prepared the ingredients, Thái wrapped, and Thắng boiled. But this year, Thắng had a stroke and spent two weeks in the hospital before he was gone. "It's very sad," Hòa says, her cheerfulness disappeared. "This year we keep making bánh chưng for some comfort, otherwise it's just too sad."

Thái is determined to keep the tradition, too. "I will do this for as long as I can," she says, "if it's only me then I'd only make one pot." To fulfil the orders this year her family will need to boil seven pots, it is 4pm when the first one begins. I leave the house and return at 6am the following morning to see the final part of the process.

After 12 hours of simmering, the bánh absorbed a lot of water. When they are taken out, they must be cleaned then pressed to force the excess water out. Thái arranges the bánh chưng on a table then sets three water jugs on top; they would remain like that for another six hours before delivery. Thái leaves the house to buy more meat for the next batch, another pot is already on the fire.

The family has only three days to finish all the orders before the new year; everybody is catching a moment of rest before continuing this marathon. The sky is still dark, all is quiet, the sweet aroma that is distinctive of bánh chưng fills the air. As I sit there watching the fire, a thought — a feeling — swirls in me: Tết is here.

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