The Great Banh Chung Experiment of 2009

I could pretend to be a high-falutin' expert like some folks, but it's easier if I just direct you to universal blogging source Wikipedia for a crash course in banh chung. Now that that's over with, let's move on to my experience.

It's been several years since I've had one of these rice cakes since they are most certainly not vegan, and somehow I got it into my head one day at work that I would make my own. Over several days and two markets, I collected glutinous rice, hulled mung beans, canned green jackfruit, and frozen banana leaves. After several more days (or weeks, really...I don't often have 8 hour blocks of time to hover near the stove), I finally settled in to making my banh chung. You might have noticed in the link above that they are generally filled with pork, wrapped in neat squares, and bound with kitchen twine. None of that applies to mine.

I wish I had a real, fool-proof recipe to offer you, but unfortunately, as this was my first and extremely experimental attempt, I can only offer guidelines. This website and this one were extremely helpful, and I loosely based my own process off of their information.

I started by soaking the rice and mung beans overnight, and preparing my jackfruit marinade, which I can give a recipe for!

Jackfruit filling
1 c. coarsely chopped green jackfruit
2 tbs. soy sauce
1 tbs. rice wine vinegar
1 tbs. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. salt

Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, and pepper in a bowl and stir. Mix in the chopped jackfruit, then cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, I drained the rice and set it aside. I heated 2 tsp. of cooking oil in a skillet over medium high heat. I added the jackfruit and sauteed for 4-5 minutes until the fruit softened and began to caramelize. Using a fork, I mashed and broke up the fruit into a shredded consistency.

Next, I drained and rinsed the mung beans, then placed them in a steamer basket for about 10 minutes until tender. I mashed the beans with a fork and set them aside to cool. Meanwhile, I soaked the banana leaves in warm water to defrost, then gently (I can't stress this enough) unfolded them on my kitchen table that I had covered with a layer of towels. I pat them dry, then cut them into several strips. Four that were approximately 5 x 18" and 4 that were about 12 x 18". I was planning to make 2 cakes.

I referenced this video to attempt to make my cakes without a mold. I placed two of the larger leaf rectangles so that they overlapped by about 5" lengthwise. Then I placed one of the narrower strips perpendicular over the first two, and the final narrow leaf, perpendicular over that one. (See video @ 15 seconds)

I scooped some rice into the center of the leaves, followed by a handful of mung beans that I had flattened into a disk. Next came a few spoonfuls of jackfruit, then another mung bean disk. At this point, I realized that I had failed to acquire kitchen twine. Not wanting to bury the beautiful leaves under layers of foil, I raided my sewing kit for some thread that I hoped would withstand several hours in simmering water. I followed the video as closely as I could, but that guy has some serious skills. When my packets were wrapped and bound, they were sad, square pillows at best and barely reminiscent of the tight geometry of tradition.

I placed my two cakes into a large stock pot, covered them with water, and brought it to a boil. I then reduced the heat to a simmer and got ready for a long night. Now, for some reason, every recipe that Google provided me with insisted on cooking these suckers uncovered. Not wanting to tempt fate, I did just that and kept a second pot on low heat, so I could top off the water as needed. But this just seems ludicrous to me. Seven hours of cooking and I'm not allowed to use a lid to reduce evaporation? I can't possibly think of a reason why that would be neccessary when cooking something that needs to be constantly submerged under water. It's not like flavors are getting concentrated since new water is being added. If someone can convince me of a good reason why I shouldn't use a lid or even a slow cooker, please let me know.

I dilligently topped off my pot and rotated my cakes every hour or so. At about 1 a.m., I figured they had had enough and removed the cakes to a colander. I placed a folded tea towel on a large plate, stacked the cakes, and covered them with another towel. I placed another plate on top, a large can of tomatoes on top of that, and left them on the counter to drain while I got some sleep.

The next morning, I cut the string and carefully unfolded to leaves to what I hoped would not be disaster.

The long, steamy bath renders the already sticky rice into a homogenous, chewy cake, stained green with the smokey, tea-like aroma of banana leaves. You can enjoy it a room temperature, or lightly heated in a steamer or microwave. The nutty mung beans and salty jackfruit, while tasty, add only a hint for flavor to this subtle cake. So how do you fix this? By frying of course! This was my favorite preparation as a child, and I would eat it drowned in mysterious Maggi sauce.

Cut your cake into slices about 3/4" thick and heat a couple teaspoons of oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. (No one said this would be healthy.) Place a couple slices in the skillet and let them sizzle for several minutes until they begin to turn golden. Flip each slice, then using a large spoon, press the slices outwards toward each other. Continue flipping and pressing until you have one, crispy pancake, about 1/2" in thickness. It's easiest to press the side that was just browned, because the hardened rice will prevent your spoon from getting glued to the cake. Eat immediately with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and a dash of soy sauce.


Mihl said...

How interesting! I never even heard of these cakes before.

Melisser; the Urban Housewife said...

They certainly look good! The jackfruit looks SO meaty!

steph said...

I would love to give bacheng a go, but the knowledge that it will take all day has so far hindered me, and also my inability to find banana leaves. I hope to try some time this coming winter. Thanks for trying it out before me, and thinking up some guidelines! :o)

Stella said...

Wow. Just, wow. I have to look into this jackfruit phenomenon.

Kisha said...

Looks excellently delicious. Reminds me of Puerto Rican Pasteles which my lovely grandma makes for me without meat.