Viet Nam News
by Vương Bạch Liên
If you are an avid traveler in Việt Nam, chances are you have heard of the Bánh Ít Towers.
The complex of stunning temple towers date back a thousand years, to the days of the Chăm Dynasty. They are now a major symbol of the historical and cultural attractions in central coastal province of Bình Định.
What has this architectural marvel to do with food?
They were originally called the “Silver towers” by French researchers, but the more popular name, Bánh Ít, has been passed through several generations of local residents.
Why did the locals name it after a dish then?
Surprisingly, the answer is very simple.
It is said that there was a woman named Thị Thiện, who used to sell bánh ít at the foot of the high mountain on which the famous towers stand.
Moreover, the towers are shaped like elongated pyramids, somewhat like the cake, which is made in a rather more compact pyramidal shape.
Over centuries, bánh ít (full name: bánh ít lá gai) has become an inseparable part of Bình Định culture and the pride of its inhabitants.
The sticky rice cakes with a coconut and green bean stuffing wrapped in a banana leaf has become part of folklore.
A popular saying goes: "If you wish to eat bánh ít lá gai, get married to a Bình Định man and enrich your life.”
While it is said to have originated in Bình Định Province, the cake has become a veritable specialty of the central coastal region.
The cake has five ingredients: sticky rice, lá gai (ramie leaf), sugar, green beans and banana leaf.
Võ Thị Bích Ngọc, owner of the Bà Dư shop in Tuy Phước District, which specializes in bánh ít lá gai, said great care has to be taken through different stages to make a good cake.
“First of all, we wash the lá gai (ramie leaves), boil them and grind them with a stone mortar until their green colour turns black.
“After that, we put sugar and the glutinous rice flour in the mortar and grind them with the ramie leaves. Then the three ingredients are mixed together to make the dough.
“The dough is then steamed in a big pot with fire from firewood (not gas or kerosene). When the dough is well done, we take small parts of the dough on a pair of chopsticks and dry them over burning coal, so that the cake will be dry and not sticky.”
The dough is then divided into different small parts and stuffed with green beans and shredded coconut.
“The green beans have to be soaked in water for hours and whipped before steaming. Then the well-done beans are ground and rolled into balls to be used as filling for the dough,” Ngọc said.
The banana leaves are usually quickly heated on fire or dipped in hot water to make them soft, so that it is easier to wrap the cake.
Explaining how important the dish was to locals, Ngọc sid that during death anniversaries, it is acceptable that no fish or meat was served, but bánh ít lá gai was a must.
In traditional marriage rituals, a tray of this cake is the gift given by the bride’s family to that of the groom. This is said to showcase the culinary skill of the bride, who has made the cake together with other villagers.
Bình Định people are so proud of that cake that they’ve made a stone model and displayed it on the beach in Quy Nhơn City.
Besides the sweet cake, tré (a kind of fermented pork) is another important dish for several central provinces, with each locality having its own distinct recipe.
While most of the ingredients are similar, each version is a little different – a little crispier there, a little sweeter here and a bit sour elsewhere. All versions have one thing in common: they are all delicious.
The tré in Bình Định has a unique shape. Covered with straw, it looks like a broomstick.
“The first time I passed through Bình Định on the 1A National Highway, I wondered why so many small broom sticks were hung in front of many small shops!,” recalled a smiling Ngô Thanh Mi.
“It was only later that I realised it was a familiar local dish, that delicious fermented pork was hidden inside the straw,” the Hanoian said.
Tré is made with pork ears, pig’s head, sesame, galangal root (riềng in Vietnamese), chili and garlic.
Pork is boiled and put it into cold water to prevent it from being sticky. It is sliced into very small pieces, mixed with spices and covered with young guava leaves. After that, they are packed under layers of straw for two or three days, and the meat is fermented naturally, absorbing the spices.
The strong smell of galangal, garlic and sesame fat, the sweet and sour fermented meat and the flavour of guava leaves combine to impart a flavour that is particular to central Việt Nam.
The dish, served with herbs, pickles, sliced carrots, and fish sauce, is also a must during festive days. The dish is highly favoured by men when they gather with friends to drink the local bầu đá wine.
Next time you enjoy Bình Định’s mountains, beaches and Chăm towers, sample these two delicacies to make it a really wholesome experience. — VNS