Hà Nguyễn & Hồ Hoàng
Tasty and delicious bánh rợm or bánh nếp (sticky rice dumpling) is a popular traditional cake made by locals in Việt Nam’s northern region.
It is said that the cake originated from the Tày ethnic group in the northern province of Cao Bằng.
Nguyễn Thị Hiền, 50, said the name rợm came from the word for straw. After harvesting glutinous rice, straw was dried around the commune. The scent of the drying straw was carried by the wind to all corners of the locality. The cake shares this same fragrance, hence its name.
Hiền recalled that more than 50 years ago, her parents resettled in Cao Bằng, which is homeland of the Tày and other ethnic minority groups who have many traditional treats, including bánh rợm.
“To join the community, my mother also made the cake for big anniversaries such as rằm tháng bảy (middle of the seventh lunar month) or Tết (Lunar New Year Festival) to worship our ancestors and send to our relatives in Nam Định Province,” she said.
Hiền was the eldest daughter in her family so she was very busy helping make the cake by cutting banana leaves from her garden, drying them under the sun for a day before cleaning them for her mother to wrap the bánh rợm.
She said her Tày neighbours often went into the forest to cut banana leaves to wrap the cake because they said these kind of leaves help make the cake more fragrant and tasty.
Her mother would go to the market to carefully choose khẩu pét (glutinous rice grown in Cao Bằng) and green beans to make the sweet filling. Sometimes she used minced pork with dried onions, wood ears, peppers and fish sauce to make a salted version.
“To make the cake filling, my mother would buy thin green beans which are much more fragrant compared with others,” Hiền said.
“I had to cook and grind the beans so that the materials are ready for my mother to mix with sugar,” she said.
“We can wrap the cake in any shape. My mother wraps the cake in a traditional way – in the form of a pyramid,” Hiền said, adding that these cakes were put on the alter to worship ancestors and send to relatives in the lowlands as a specialty from the mountains.
The cake is so tasty that people in other northern provinces learned how to make it, becoming popular among street vendors in Hà Nội and HCM City.
Trương Thị Huyền in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter sells a lot of traditional cakes such as bánh rợm, bánh dày (round sticky rice dumpling), bánh khoai (taro), bánh cốm (young sticky rice), bánh phu thê (wedding dumpling) and many others.
In Hà Nội they call it quà quê (gifts of homeland).
Each cake represents a rural locality and has its own flavour although they use the same ingredients – sticky rice and green beans, Huyền said, adding that the cakes were made by her relatives in Hà Nội, Cao Bằng, Nam Định and Bắc Ninh provinces and delivered to her shop early in the morning, ready for her customers, including foreign tourists and travellers visiting the capital city.
Despite selling them in the bustling Old Quarter, which is full of modern and imported cakes from foreign countries, Huyền’s quà quê still sells well from 7am to 10pm.
Phạm Tuấn Hải, 54, former judge on Việt Nam Master Chef, said he is a regular customer of Huyền’s shop. “I like eating quà quê, particularly bánh rợm and bánh tẻ (rice dumpling) so much because it reminds me of my grandmother who often made it for us.” — VNS