Bánh chưng and bánh tét to the Vietnamese Tết are like turkey and ham to the American Thanksgiving. The holiday feast just wouldn’t feel right without them. Although I have blogged about these sticky rice squares and logs before, the lunar new year has come back, and so are they. Sticky rice can be uberfilling in large quantity, and like all festive food, it’s not recommended that you feast on these dense beasts day after day, as satisfaction would turn into tiresomeness. But once a year, or maybe twice, a couple slices of banh tet sound so much more interesting than cereal, rice, even noodle soup.
Banh chung and banh tet have rather similar ingredients, especially when they’re made by Vietnamese Southerners. Both are wrapped in leaves (although slightly different kinds of leaves), and boiled for hours in water that is sometimes spiced with lemongrass. After cooking, a heavy weight is put on banh chung to drain the water, while banh tet are rolled around to perfect the cylindrical shape. I remember we used to hang pairs of banh tet in my grandfather’s kitchen, taking one down everyday during the week of Tet to whip out a nice settling meal with thịt kho trứng (pork and egg stew), dưa giá (pickled bean sprout), and spring rolls. There are the savory kind with meat and mung bean paste, and the vegan kind for those who want to practice self-control on the first day of Tet. In Houston, my mom usually gets the savory kind from Giò Chả Đức Hương, where we also get our cha lua supply, and the vegan kind from Linh Son pagoda. I branched out this year and tried a meaty log from Huong Lan Sandwiches 4 in Milpitas.
Their banh tet measures about 7 inches long, making eight thick nice slices, each has a chunk of fatty pork in the middle, pink and spiced with pepper. The sticky rice coat here gave its leaf wrapping a bit insecure sliminess when we first unraveled, but all was well. The banh tet smelled great, the sticky rice has a tight but soft texture. The seasoned bean paste is just salty enough to intrigue. In some way, banh tet is better than banh chung because every bite guarantees a bit of everything. No piece will miss the meat completely and no bite will get all the meat, the stuffing is even throughout the whole banh. It was honestly good by itself without condiments. Huong Lan Sandwiches had not failed me.
And neither did Thao Tien. When we got there last week in our quail quest, Thao Tien’s employees were busy running a small table pyramidized with banh chung and banh tet. They locate nicely in front of the Grand Century mall, passed by hundreds of people Tet shopping that day. Seeing the sale went like hot cakes (the sticky rice cakes were actually still warm), we were too eager to snatch one home that we forgot to check the tiny white sticker on the side. Surprise, we had grabbed a bánh tét chuối (banana banh tet).
It’s solely vegan. The sticky rice coat is made interesting with dots of black beans on shiny green background. The core is sweet, mushy banana in a reddish purple hue. This is just the usual ivory banana that always ripe too soon, but somehow slow cooking in a compact block of sticky rice wrapped by banana leaves makes the fruit change color. Chemical reactions? It still tastes sweet, with a hint of bitter (for lack of a better word) like a guava skin. And it looks beautiful to me.
The banana banh tet also goes well with my rotisserie chicken from Safeway, minus the guilt of defeating the whole vegan purpose thing. Thao Tien’s logs are also shamelessly long, almost two times bigger than Huong Lan’s. I will be eating banh tet every day for the rest of the week. Happy Tết to bánh tét and me!
Address: Hương Lan Sandwiches 4
41 Serra Way, Ste. 108
Milpitas, CA 95035
1 bánh tét with meat: $6
Thảo Tiên restaurant
Grand Century Mall
1111 Story Road #1080
San Jose, CA 95122
1 vegan banana bánh tét: $10