Story of cay cake in Thai Binh

Thai Binh is commonly known for its immense rolling fields, but a tastier treat it is home to is the bánh cáy, or cáy cakes, made of sticky rice, sugar, gấc (gardenia fruit), sesame seeds, carrots, mandarin peel and lard.

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The name cáy originates from the cakes’ appearance because they resemble the eggs of the cáy, a small crab found in rivers and rice paddies. The cakes are traditionally served with tea, 68-year-old local woman Nguyen Thi Ut said.

Story of cay cake in Thai Binh
Bánh cáy (cáy) cake is must-try in Thai Binh. — Photo pasgo.vn

Ut told me a story about the cake’s birthplace, Nguyen Village. During the 1700s Nguyen Thi Tan, the daughter of a Nguyen Dynasty mandarin, was selected by King Le Hien Tong to nurse his son Le Duy Vy, who was later crowned prince.

When the prince grew up, he was arrested by a Trinh Lord for trying to consolidate the Le Dynasty’s power. Only Tan was allowed to meet Vy, who said he could not eat the food he was given in prison.

Years later Tan retired to her village and handed down the job to her neighbours. When the prince was released and crowned King, he asked Tan’s villagers to offer him the cake every year.

And they are still making the cakes today, Ut said.

To make a tasty and delicious cáy cake involves a very complicated process and many stages. 

“First we have to choose a type of glutinous rice named nếp quýt because it has a specific fragrance and is softer than others. We order it from Hai Phong’s Vinh Bao District where water is salinized to give the rice a rich aroma,” said Ut.

Other ingredients for the cake include gấc (a fruit found in Southeast Asia) or gardenia fruit, peanuts, ginger, carrots and mandarin peel, said Ut.

The glutinous rice is divided into three parts, two for steaming with gấc to create the scarlet colour and gardenia for a bright yellow hue.

The glutinous rice is then ground in a stone mortar using a pestle until it becomes a dough. This is rolled out and cut into pieces (5cm by 1cm) and dried before frying it until crispy.

Story of cay cake in Thai Binh
Cáy is more enjoyable when eaten with a cup of tea. — Photo dulichvietnam.com.vn
 

Other ingredients such as roasted peanuts, sesame, glutinous rice, pork fat cut into pieces and mixed with sugar for half a month, carrot, ginger juice and mandarin peel are mixed together before frying.

Ut said all the ingredients are then mixed with sugar cane and cooked until fragrant before they’re put in moulds coated with roasted sesame seeds and compressed until hard.

“The cakes should not be dried under the sun or by the fire. They can be kept for several months,” Ut said, adding that the Thai Binh cakes sold well across the country and the world.

Nguyen Trong Quy, who has been praised for preserving the tradition of making bánh cáy, said only a dozen households in Nguyen Village were still making the cakes.

“IT’s not just about making a profit. It’s much more important for us to keep this traditional job going because it was handed down by our ancestors in an effort to serve customers inside and outside the country,” he said, noting that the village had registered a trademark for the cake to develop the job sustainably.

To Thanh Binh from Bac Ninh Province said he was an addict. “I often order the cakes from Thai Binh to offer to our ancestors during the Tet holiday or for weddings,” Binh said, adding that several households in his province made the cake but it just wasn’t the same as Thai Binh’s.

Truong Thi Dung from Australia told Việt Nam News that she sometimes craves the cakes and whenever she has a chance to return to the country she often travels to Thai Binh to buy them.

Herbalist Hoang Van Dan from the Thai Binh Traditional Medicinal Centre warned however that bánh cáy is although rich in protein and calories so people suffering from diabetes or obesity should avoid them.

“I still enjoy a cake with a cup of strong tea every day with my friends. It’s my guilty pleasure,” Dan said. VNS  

By Ha Nguyen and Hoang Ho