Coconut bánh. The simple name lends room for innocent confusions with the French Coco au Miel, the Malaysian kuih binka gandum, the coconut cookies, and a whole flock of other Vietnamese coconut treats also known as bánh dừa (with some additives like “grilled”, “honeyed”, or “lemon”). People of the deep south don’t get too fancy with names: when the bánh has coconut milk mixed with sticky rice and is wrapped in coconut leaves, it has every right to be call a coconut bánh. Besides, children identify it by the unique look.
A stiff, almost cylindrical case, as long as a palm and almost two fingers wide, is made from wrapping one single young coconut leaf around hours of training, to protect the glutinous rice and bean paste core for days in the tropics’ heat. The one I bought stays good for two weeks in the fridge, unwrapped.
Such longevity expectedly costs a good deal of skill and time. Wax sticky rice, a special cultivar in Vĩnh Long known for its gumminess and fragrance, is soaked in water at midnight. The banh makers wake up at 4am to wash the sticky rice as carefully as six to seven times to get rid of bran and dirt, the first step to delay spoilage. Washed sticky rice is then air dried, while the banh makers squeeze coconut milk out of grated coconut and wrap up the leafy tubes, which could turn an ugly wilting purple unless put in the shade. Dried sticky rice is mixed with coconut milk, salt and sugar, sometimes black beans, into a gooey mess to be portioned into the tubes. The first one third of the tube is sticky rice, then comes mung bean paste or half a ripe banana, and more sticky rice to fill up the tube. I will forever be puzzled by how to make the sweet filling perfectly in the middle of the sticky rice layer. There is also no clear instruction on how to tie up the banh with a string, but rest assured that there are many ways to get it wrong. If the string is too tight, sticky rice can’t rise and your bánh dừa is one dry stick. If the string is too loose, water vapor seeps in while steaming, your bánh dừa becomes half-porridge and spoils fast.
By 7am all wrapping is done, banh makers throw their sticks, now strung together in small bundles, into the boiling steamer for a solid 5 hours. The steam water is often mixed with alum to keep the case’s healthy yellow color, but too much alum can make the banh turn sour. At noon, fresh bánh dừa is ready for the markets.
Holding the light and compact banh in hand, I picture country kids of the Mekong Delta stick these coconut sticky rice sticks in their pockets and school bags for an early morning in the rice paddies, an afterlunch snack, a quick filler while running around with the kites. The coconut leaf unwraps swiftly with no effort, reveal a firm and chewy, fatty and nutty, salty and earthy treat that requires no reheating or refrigerating. Some may see it as merely a miniature bánh tét, but the coconut leaf gives bánh dừa its signature fragrance and a deserving separation from the banana leaf wrappers.
Bánh dừa is cheap. Ten years ago the Southern Vietnamese villagers sold them for 500VND a stick. Inflation brings it up to 2000VND these days, roughly 11 US cents. The ones in San Jose banh mi stores cost one wild buck each, but they often lie on the counter unnoticed for who knows how long. “Posh” customers don’t go for the leafy wrapped treats when plastic and styrofoam and colorful packaging look more sanitized. City kids are not attracted to these because they don’t scream chocolate and sugar. Like the old country ham of North Carolina, bánh dừa has fallen out of the trend, and most of their makers have long put away the steamers for something more profitable.
I had a bánh dừa for dinner today. How much longer will its kind stay in the market to compete against the Western sweets? I don’t know.
Got it from: Kim’s Sandwiches
(in the Lion Supermarket area)
1816 Tully Rd 182, San Jose, CA 95111