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.
Diep Tran’s Lunar New Year Cakes (Bánh Chưng)
Chef Diep Tran shares this savory bánh chưng recipe for “The Matriarch,” an homage to her grandmother.
2 lbs sweet rice
3 lbs pork belly, sliced ⅓” thick
1 lb mung beans
4 shallots, thinly sliced and caramelized
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp black pepper, plus extra to taste
Salt, to taste
Banana leaves, cut into 3” & 1” strips
1 large, tall stock pot
3”x3”x1” metal molds
Food sealer bags
Vacuum sealer machine
Sous-vide machine, optional
Prepare the rice: Soak the sweet rice in water overnight in the refrigerator.
Prepare the filling: Simmer mung beans in plenty of water until tender. Drain and set aside.
Next, sauté the sliced shallots in oil until caramelized. Add the mung beans and season the mixture with salt and pepper, to taste.
In a large bowl, combine the fish sauce, garlic and 1 tablespoon of black pepper. Slice pork belly into ⅓” strips, then cut the strips into 2½” pieces. Transfer the sliced pork belly strips to the bowl and coat evenly with marinade.
Assemble the cakes: Line the metal molds with two 3” banana leaf strips, one covering the top and bottom walls of the mold; the other covering the left and right walls of the mold. There should be at least 2” of leaves sticking out from the top edge of the mold. Place an additional 1” strip flush against the walls of the mold, effectively creating a perimeter.
Place a tablespoon of sweet rice into center the mold, then add 1–2 slices of pork belly and a tablespoon of the mung bean mixture, making sure to avoid the side edges of the mold. Spoon more sweet rice to fill in the rest of the mold.
Fold down the overhanging strips of banana leaves to close the cake. Flip the cake over and carefully remove it from the mold. Bind the banana leaf package together together with kitchen twine. Place the cakes into sealer bags, adding an ice cube per each cake. Vacuum seal the bags.
To cook: Place the bags of cakes in a large, tall pot and fill with hot water. Cover and boil the cakes for 6 hours. If using sous-vide equipment, set temperature to 210ºF and sous-vide for 6 hours.
After 6 hours, remove the bags from the pot and plunge them into an ice bath. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
To serve: Remove the banana leaves and enjoy the cake as is. Or, pan-fry them to crisp the sides of the cake and serve with scallion oil or Maggi Seasoning.