When you reach(ed) mid 20s, don’t you just hear all sort of marriage announcements popping up among your social circle? By the time of college graduation, half the girls I know have gotten their wedding registry up on Facebook, and I thought okay it’s just an American thing (the wedding I mean, though the registry is American too). Then this past Christmas my best college friend missed our annual reunion for his big day in India, and another pal who I thought was still wandering the streets of Chengdu dropped the bomb that he’s engaged. Then I got news that two of my eleventh grade buddies in Vietnam are going to say the vows (not to each other) within this year. Then it really hits me.
I haven’t written about any wedding party food, even though I’ve been to many weddings . So why not celebrate this year’s Valentine’s day with a Vietnamese confection whose name derives from the main characters of any wedding: bánh xu xê, originally called bánh phu thê, or “husband (and) wife”?
My translation “couple cookie” is for the sake of consonant concordance. They are similar to neither American cookie, Scottish cookie nor British cookie. These little bouncy sweet green pillows get their names from being gift desserts at Vietnamese couples’ engagements back in the day, when they used banana leaves to make little boxes instead of a double layer of cellophane wrapper. At one point the adults called them bánh phu thê, then the kids mispronounced it to bánh xu xê (|soo-seh|) and the name stuck. Technique-wise, it takes a grandmother’s experience to make a mixture of sticky rice flour, arrowroot starch and water into a translucent jello casing that is resilient but not sticky. Some of us might find its crunch-chewy texture too rubbery, other would question its lack of flavor, but the skill of transforming ingredients alone is admirable, and I like chewing. In fact I like the outer layer more than the filling.
Traditionally, taro cut into strips are mixed with the cooked batter to give onyx-like patterns, while the modern concoctions can have sesame seeds on top or dry coconut strips within to spice up the homogeneity. The fancy pâtissiers of old Northern Vietnam villages might also sprinkle a few drops of pomelo flower extract into the mung bean paste filling for enhancing fragrance. But I wouldn’t expect that from our local sandwich shops in the States, not when it’s less than $2 for a pack of four.
It’s the kind of sweet you either love or hate. My mom loves it. The Gastronomer suggests using it to pelt your loved ones. It’s the perfect representation of a marriage really, and I’m not talking about the symbolic meaning of glutinous rice (bonding) and all. Its shiny outlook is inviting – everybody likes to get married, then you take a bite and find it tough, lackluster, disappointing, at the least not quite as expected – the post-wedding depression, then you get to the core and discover some tender sweetness after all.
Got ‘em from: Alpha Bakery & Deli (inside Hong Kong City Mall)
11209 Bellaire Blvd # C-02
Houston, TX 77072-2548