Saigonese of Chinese descent make a ‘cleansing’ sticky rice cake

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Many households of Chinese descent in Saigon make a unique dish for the summer cleansing festival – the “ba trang” cake.

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Ha Cam Toan and his family in District 11 have been making ba trang, a savory glutinous rice cake, for the summer cleansing festival for the past 25 years. In Chinese, “ba” is meat and “trang” is rice cake. It is made especially for Tet Doan Ngo, a summer festival that cleanses the body and spirit. The festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which falls on June 14 this year.
“Chinese people often have fruit, wine and ba trang cake hanging in their houses. There are many ways to make this cake. Every family gives their own twist to the recipe,” Toan said as he hung the cakes on two bamboo poles.

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Inside Toan’s house on Tue Tinh Street, relatives gather to help make the cake. Every year, the family makes about 6,000 cakes to sell. For the entire week, nearly a dozen of his relatives have helped soak rice, wash leaves, wrap and boil the cakes.
“My family also makes this cake to sell on other days, but we only make 50 cakes. For Tet Doan Ngo, we make a lot more to sell, mostly to traders from the Chinatown area,” said Toan.

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A relative helps soak rice and mung beans, main ingredients of the ba trang cake. Glutinous rice will be added with little salt and soaked for three hours. The mung beans are soaked for six hours.

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Tran Cam Thao, Toan’s mother, arranges bundles of washed and pre-boiled banana leaves and bamboo leaves in baskets for wrapping. “Many Chinese families just use bamboo leaves. But my family adds an extra layer of banana leaves on the outside to give the cake its own flavor and make it easier to wrap,” she said.

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The filling of the rice cake typically includes meat, salted egg yolk, dried shrimp, peanuts and shiitake mushrooms. The filling is seasoned with spices, giving the cake its distinct aroma.

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Depending on the size or customer’s request, each cake will have one to four salted egg yolks. Ba trang cakes are wrapped in a pyramid or square shape.

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The Hong (R), a neighbor of Toan who has been coming over to help make the rice cake for Tet Doan Ngo for the past five yeas, said: “It’s very hard to make this cake, because it doesn’t use a mold, so the banana and bamboo leaves have to be cut in a certain way to get the desired shape. It’s fun to see children and youngsters gathering together for this and talk about all kinds of things,” she said.

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About four km away, nearly a dozen households on Gia Phu Street in District 6 are also busy making and wrapping the cakes. Chu Que Lan (orange shirt) said nearly 10,000 cakes were made this year, using only bamboo leaves as wrapping.

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In the kitchen, Luong Dung Quang watches over six pots at the same time. The cake is cooked on a fire with firewood and charcoal for eight hours.
Quang said the cakes are taken out and hung up to drain without “overlapping.” The cake is most delicious when it is chewy and has a distinguishing aroma of the five-spice blend, the fatty taste of salted duck egg yolk and bacon. The cake tastes best after it has been hung up for five to seven days, he added.

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Nearly a week before the festival, ba trang cakes would be sold on Gia Phu Street in District 6. Each cake weighs about half a kilogram and costs about VND60,000-70,000 ($2.61-3.04).

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