Recipe: Diep Tran’s Lunar New Year Rice Cakes (Bánh Chưng)

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Banh Chung - Steamed Packages
Photos taken at a bánh chưng-making session held by Chef Diep Tran. (All photos by Cathy Chaplin)

Chef Diep Tran
Chef Diep Tran fills the bánh chưng.

Monday marks the start of the upcoming lunar new year. This significant holiday is celebrated from Nepal to Mongolia and China to Cambodia. Each country has its own special new year foods and traditions, and it’s said that by observing these customs, one will have good luck in the coming year.

Thousands of Angelenos with East and Southeast Asian roots will ring in the lunar new year in Southern California this month too. At Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park, Chef Diep Tran marks Tết, the Vietnamese new year, through making bánh chưng. Tran learned how to make these tasty, banana leaf-wrapped packages of glutinous rice — typically filled with pork and mung beans — from her grandmother as a child.

Tran says making bánh chưng is like making tamales since it’s a labor-intensive process that takes about two days from start to finish. All the work is done by women — from soaking the rice to minding the fire to assembling the ingredients and wrapping them all up in banana leaves. Those last two important steps, Tran recalls, were assigned to her once she had some experience making bánh chưng.

Traditionally, the lunar new year cakes are weighty 6-inch x 6-inch x 3-inch squares that are ultimately quartered and eaten by families at lunar new year celebrations. At Good Girl Dinette, Chef Tran is making smaller versions, which are faster to cook. Through March 8, she’s offering up “The Matriarch,” which is her grandmother’s savory version made with pork belly and mung beans, and a sweet, vegan version of the lunar new year cake she calls “The Black Sheep.” It is filled with tongue of fire beans, coconut milk and palm sugar.

Chef Tran’s bánh chưng will be available at Good Girl Dinette for the first full month of the lunar new year, starting on February 8 through March 8.

Banh Chung - Filling Layers
Layering the bánh chưng filling into the square banana leaf-lined molds. (All photos courtesy of Cathy Chaplin at www.gastronomyblog.com)