It combines the flavor of pandan leaves and the sweet aroma of sticky rice. The cake, known as “Gau” (which means spotted-dove or cuckoo), has been passed down by Cao Lan women for generations.
The cake is often brought to work in the fields or on long trips. Dao Thi Dung, a Cao Lan woman who lives in Vinh Phuc province, said that Gau cake is connected to the story of a young woman named Slau Slam.
“Slau Slam was walking down the street when she saw a dead spotted-dove at the edge of the road. Its crop was full of sesame seeds. Not far away, in a pandan bush, some young birds were weakly calling. The woman deduced that the mother bird had choked to death on the sesame seeds, which were swelling in her crop, before she could bring the seeds to her babies. Moved to tears by the tragic fate of the mother bird, Slau Slam took the seeds from the mother’s crop and fed the baby birds,” said Dung.
“Slau Slam wove pineapple leaves into a basket and brought the baby birds to her home. Reflecting on the motherly love that birds and humans share, she made a cake of sticky rice wrapped in pandan leaves to symbolize that love and shared her recipe with others. Whenever we visit our children or on festival days, Cao Lan people eat this cake that symbolizes maternal love.”
The Cao Lan gather pandan leaves from the forest to make the cake, which gives it a more aromatic flavor. After washing and drying the pandan leaves, they peel off the thorns and then weave them into the shape of little cuckoo birds. Sticky rice is mixed with a little salt to enhance the flavor and then stuffed into the “birds”.
The cuckoo cakes are placed in a pot and boiled. For delicious cakes, you must keep an eye on the fire and add water as needed to keep the cakes submerged. The cakes will be cooked after an hour or so. Then they should be taken out of the pot and placed on a bamboo tray, then left in an open place to cool and drain before serving.
The recipe can be varied to suit different tastes. The basic version is just sticky rice and salt. More sophisticated versions include green beans or meat, or color the rice with selected forest leaves to enhance the flavor.
The cuckoo cakes of the Cao Lan symbolize a mother bird’s protection and care for her family. Cuckoo cakes can be found at festivals and tourist sites throughout the northwest region.