Vietnamese often make two types of cakes - banh troi (floating cakes) and banh chay (lean cakes) - on the third day of the third month of the Lunar year, to worship their ancestors. Tet Han Thuc, or the ‘Cold Food Festival’, falls on 21 April this year. Despite most people forgetting the festival’s origins, it’s still considered important among all the Vietnamese rituals.
These cakes are a ‘must-have’ dish for every Vietnamese family on the day. Whoever is tasked with cooking must wake up early to prepare the cakes and then place them on the family altar together with some flowers for worshiping. In these modern days, savvy working housewives don’t have time for the time-consuming task, so they prefer to buy floating cakes at food stalls in the market. But like many things, the best are home-made.
Banh troi are small white balls made from brown sugar, wrapped in glutinous rice flour. The name ‘floating cake’ came about from the way it is actually cooked. Banh chay are also made from glutinous flour, but they resemble boiled dumplings and are filled with mung bean paste, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and served in bowls with syrup floured from grapefruit blossoms.
The dough for both banh troi and banh chay is prepared mainly from sticky rice flour. To avoid too much stickiness, wise cookers mix it up with a little ordinarily rice flour. They blend the two types and gradually add some warm water, mixing until the dough turns smooth, elastic and glutinous. The dough is then covered with a banana leaf and set to rest for half an hour.
The most important stage of making banh troi is the shaping. Cooks pinch a little dough and flatten it out, place a brown sugar ball in the middle and roll it into a smaller ball of about 3 cm in diameter. Like making donuts, this step requires skilled hands or the rice ball will easily break.
The cook boils some water, lets it cool, then brings it to boil again. When the balls float to the surface of the pot, they’re taken out with a ladle then immediately placed into a bowl of cold water to prevent them from being overly sticky or sticking together.
The final step is the presentation. The white glutinous balls are put onto a plate and sprinkled with roasted white sesame seeds. Once made, they should be eaten that day.
Traditionally, floating cakes are white with a sugary taste, but talented cooks can make them more colourful and tasty by adding food colouring or flavouring to the dough.
The same steps in preparing the dough are needed for making banh chay. When preparing the mung beans, they should be cooked or steamed and then pounded until fine, then rolled into balls before becoming too dry. For a more distinctive flavour, the cook can mix the pounded beans with some slices of coconut then stir-fry with sugar.
In the shaping stage, just pick some dough, flatten it slightly, put the bean ball in the middle, and seal the dough to make a round piece. The cakes are then boiled like banh troi. The final step is to mix cassava flour with water to a slightly thick substance, then boil it and add grapefruit flowers, and sprinkle it over the cakes. For a more eye-catching appearance, the cook usually tops the bowl of banh chay with some white slices of coconut or whole steamed mung beans.
As special dishes exclusively for Tet Han Thuc, banh troi and banh chay as well as their ingredients are sold at every market throughout the country near and on the day. Expats in Hanoi can buy the ready-made ingredients and delight their children at home with a Vietnamese cooking lesson.