13 February 2007

Kitchen Gods & Banh Chung

My Vietnamese language school organized a Tet cultural day field trip to partake in the making of traditional Tet “cakes”, visit a Tet tree farm, and go to a shoe factory. (I still haven’t figured out if there is any connection with shoes and Tet, but think not.)

Tet cakes, or Banh Chung, are not sweet; they are made of rice and meat. To see them being made in the traditional way, we drove about an hour out of HCMC, to a house where a woman in her 70’s has been making and selling them every Tet for years.

We crowded into the long, narrow, front part of her house where a banquet sized table was set up with various ingredients in large bowls. One contained a cooked, ground-up and sweetened, green bean mixture, although the color was yellow. Another bowl was filled with cooked, sticky rice, and a third was filled with fatty, grilled pieces of pork. On one end of the table was a pile of fresh banana leaves.

The woman dampened and piled up the leaves, then quickly went about piling on the rice, followed by the beans, and finally the pork. She then deftly wrapped and folded the leaves around the filling. After doing so, she tied string strips, made of fresh bamboo, around the cake, wrapping and knotting the ends together. It was quite an impressive demonstration.

She had several others making the cakes, but they needed to make theirs using square wooden forms. After they cakes are assembled, they are cooked in boiling water for ten hours. A cooked cake was opened and cut for us to try, which I didn’t.

Another type of Banh was being put together in one corner of the room. This one is sweet and ever so tasty. Balls of the green bean paste are incased in this grey looking gooey stuff, that is actually cooked sticky rice and something else that gives it color. The ball is then wrapped in a dried banana leaf, tied, and boiled.
The texture of the sticky rice when cooked is chewy; sort of like taffy and sort of like thick jelly.

Our next stop was at the tree farm. I had been expecting to see rows of beautiful, flowering yellow trees. What we saw were ornamental shaped trees with buds, but no blooms. Every time I have asked, I have been told that the trees bloom on the first day of Tet. I understand that one has to know when to plant and when to water, and at what time of the year, but just could not understand how anyone could possibly predict the exact day a plant would bloom. The only answer I ever got is that the horticulturist is very experienced.

Expressing my incomprehension at this magical phenomenon, a fellow student from Taiwan gave me the inside scoop. He told me that the blossoming is dependent upon sunlight, and that to delay it, you must use artificial light. If it looks like the blossoms will open the next day after a good nights sleep, you keep them under light all night. When he said this, I looked up and, sure enough, there were lights on tall poles extended over every tree. I still don’t understand exactly how it works, but at least I know it is more than just paranormal activity.

The trees are shaped much in the same way as Bonsai, tying and slowly bending the branches. Some are designed to give the impression of a dragon taking flight, or in some other auspicious forms.

The tree itself is an apricot tree, but not the one we know. It does not bear fruit. It is considered very important because of its special characteristics that “can be compared with the virtues of human beings. The apricot has a pure beauty and its flowering informs the coming of the spring. The yellow flower is the symbol of generosity, success, luxury, and also the color of royalty.” This is from the info sheet we were given, which goes on to say that “If the apricot blossoms on the eve of Tet, the first day of the lunar new year, good luck, prosperity, and happiness will come to the family for the whole year.”

The day of our trip, the 23rd of the 12th month of the lunar calendar, seven days before Tet, is also the day in which you honor the Kitchen Gods. On that day the gods are called to the heavens to report on the family’s activities of that year. The return again on the eve of the first day of the lunar year; Tet. We got a demonstration in the kitchen of the apricot farm’s house. The kitchen alter is set with fruit and incense and flowers. The lady of the house lit the incense, waved them in front of the alter, said something, then placed the burning sticks on the alter.

From there, we went to the shoe factory which was a lot of toxic varnish fumes, horrid working conditions, and instant headaches, so I will not elaborate. Maybe the most enjoyable part of the whole day was that I was outside of the big city, in completely different environments than I have ever experienced in Vietnam.

I await the blossoming of the Tet trees in just a few days.