Sitting still, it looks like a rock. It is sweet with a hint of lard. It is chewy with a weak crunch, similar to a lasagna’s crust. The smooth, thick black skin shines like lacquered wood, but possesses an almost clear and cool embrace of jello. Though closely related to the superglutinous and mud-heavy banh it, banh gai takes it light.
The same everenduring stuff of Vietnamese villagers’ creations are thrown together, wrapped and steamed in banana leaves: sticky rice flour, water, mung bean paste, sugar. If you make it in cone shape and let the sugar brown the flour naturally, you get banh it. Go the extra mile of picking, chopping, sun-drying, boiling, and grinding the ramie leaves to a black powder that you would mix with your sticky rice flour in a 1:10 ratio, then after the fire settles you get banh gai.
Actually, you get the skin of banh gai. The thorny ramie leaves with silver underside give the black buns their color and trademark names, “thorn leaf banh it” (bánh ít lá gai), “thorn leaf banh” (bánh lá gai), or, most economically, “thorn banh” (bánh gai). But as proof of their everversatile imagination with ingredients, the villagers of North Vietnam mix the mung bean paste with shredded coconut, lotus seed, ground peanut, winter melon (bí đao) for crunchiness, and translucent cubes of pig fat or vegetable oil for a mild saltiness.
The thorn leaf buns sold in package of three for $1.99 at CD Bakery & Deli don’t have fat cubes, peanuts, and pieces of winter melon. They are wrapped with plastic instead of banana leaves. They are labeled “mung bean black sesame mochi”. They contain yellow and blue (?) food colorings. But I like their slightly sweet, slightly crunchy, slightly cool black skin.
After a week at room temperature, they get white mold. Perhaps, it is to match the white sesame seeds on top.
Address: CD Bakery & Deli (in the Lion Market plaza)
1816 Tully Road, #198
San Jose, CA 95122
Open 7 days 8am – 8pm
Something else from CD Bakery: sugarcane juice