Locals Rush to Purchase Traditional Nepalese Cakes for Doan Ngo Festival

Sticky rice dumpling, or bánh nếp, is a beloved traditional cake favored by people in Vietnam's north.

Locals Rush to Buy Traditional Nep Cake for Doan Ngo Festival
Green beans used to make the sweet filling of Nep cake. Photo: Hong Ngoc

Just like how banh chung is the soul of Tet (Luner new year), banh nep (sticky rice cake) is a prime traditional food of Tet Doan Ngo, besides fermented glutinous rice, fruits with sour taste such as lychee or plum.

Tet Doan Ngo, also called Duanwu Festival, Worm-killing Day or Mid-year Festival, is a traditional festival held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in the year. This festival is also popular in China and Korea.

In Vietnam, Tet Doan Ngo is also known as “Tet sau bo” (insects killing festival). Farmers on this day get rid of all pests to start growing their crops for the new season. Tet Doan Ngo is also an occasion when the Vietnamese people show their gratitude to others.

Nep cake is a traditional dish that preserves the cultural identity of Hanoi people. However, over time, Ha Noi’s famous Nep cake cake was gradually lost, only very few places to make and sell it properly. Therefore, in the heart of the bustling, modern city, Nep cake is considered as a “rare and hard to find” traditional dish.

Locals Rush to Buy Traditional Nep Cake for Doan Ngo Festival
Minced pork with dried onions, wood ears, peppers and fish sauce used to make a salted version. Photo: Hong Ngoc

Nguyen Thu Huong, owner of a food shop on To Hien Thanh Street (Hai Ba Trung District, Hanoi) and a kitchen workshop in Nguyen Luong Bang Street (Dong Da District) started to sell this cake 6 years ago.

Up to now, Nep cake has always been one of the most expensive dishes of the restaurant, regardless of weekdays or Tet holidays, especially the Mid-year Festival. This cake consists of two main parts, a smooth, soft crust and a rich salty filling.

“My childhood is associated with simple dishes imbued with the cultural identity of Hanoians. Subconsciously, I have always been impressed with the sticky rice cakes of mothers and grandmothers, forever remembering the bold flavor of this rustic snack. Later, when Nep cake gradually disappeared, I decided to learn and refer to recipes and experiences from many sources to restore and preserve the simple gifts of Hanoians,” Huong shared.

Ingredients for this dish consist of glutinous rice flour, steamed mung bean paste mixed with stir-fried minced pork for the savory filling cakes and sweetened steamed mung bean paste for the sweet ones. Nep cake looks like two arched hands proning together. It is often wrapped by fresh banana leaves before being boiled in water. Once the cakes are cooked, people fish them out and leave to cool down.

In addition to the main ingredients including shrimp, fatty meat, the filling is also skillfully processed with accompanying spices such as pepper, Phu Quoc or Phan Thiet fish sauce, and Dien Bien wood ear, to ensure the dish remains the most characteristic intense flavor.

Besides, banana leaves are also carefully selected by Huong, often dried in the sun or over a fire (on a shady, rainy, windless day without sunshine) so that the leaves are soft and durable. As a result, when wrapping the cake the leaves do not tear and fully cover the dough.

Locals Rush to Buy Traditional Nep Cake for Doan Ngo Festival
Tasty and delicious bánh nếp (sticky rice cake) is a popular traditional cake made by locals in Vietnam’s northern region. Photo: Huong Thu Nguyen

Thanks to the meticulous and thorough processing in each stage, Nep cake is still popular with many diners in modern cities, becoming a gift to warm the stomach at any time of the day.

Huong revealed that on peak days such as weekends, wedding season, party season or Mid-year Festival, Nep cakes are always sold out. Some days, the store serves more than 500 pieces and must mobilize all employees to meet the orders.

However, Nep cakes are handmade, requiring a lot of sophistication, so the shop only serves a limited quantity to ensure the quality, so that diners can enjoy the flavor of the cake to the fullest.

Once the cake is cooked, the outer wrapping leaves will turn light green and peel easily, while the inner leaf often sticks to the dough. Nep cake, with the softness of sticky rice dough and buttery taste of mung bean, will definitely stimulate your appetite.

Locals Rush to Buy Traditional Nep Cake for Doan Ngo Festival
These cakes and dish were put on the altar to worship ancestors before consuming. Photo: Huong Thu Nguyen
Hannah Nguyen