As a northerner and Hanoian I often ask my friends down south to show me some local food when I go and visit them. Southern cuisine always seems to have something new and attractive, based on the specific characteristics of its culture and climate and local tastes. For me, the speciality of southern food is its cakes. It would take a few months to sample all of the hundred or more different kinds found in the area. For a cake lover like me, the Annual Southern Folk Cake Festival held last month in Can Tho city was something of a godsend.
Leaves over cakes
As the name suggests, leaf cakes are covered with various leaves, like bamboo, banana, gai, or dong, then boiled or steamed. The cakes are infused and perfumed by the light scents and also the colours of the leaves they’re wrapped in. Southern people mostly use banana leaves to wrap cakes, including Banh it (known as Banh Gai in the north, with leaves from the gai tree used instead), Banh u (called Banh Gio in the north and made from rice soaked in the fluid of ash (gio) from burnt medical plants), and, especially, the ‘Queen’ of traditional southern cakes, Banh Tet.
Banh Tet is a sticky rice cake associated, of course, with Tet, the Lunar New Year. ‘It’s a little like a savoury pancake,’ said Matt Lowe, an English expat. In the past Vietnamese people only cooked Banh Tet at Tet but they can now be found at markets on any day of the year. Banh Tet can stay fresh at room temperate for a few days or up to three months in the fridge. Because of its good preservation and small size, Banh Tet was used by Vietnamese soldiers during wartime as a source of iron and nutrition in one meal.
Banh Tet and Banh Chung (which are covered with dong leaves) share the same ingredients: nutty mung beans and fatty pork marinated with fish sauce, pepper and a bit of sugar, which taste great together. When sliced and fried until golden and crispy, they’re soft on the inside and crisp on the outside. In the south, though, a small portion of coconut milk is added to make Banh Tet richer in taste than Banh Chung. The two can also be distinguished by their shape, as Banh Tet is round while Banh Chung is square.
To add a touch of creativity, some kinds of Banh Tet also have extra sweet fillings, like banana and green beans. Influenced by the Asian principle of the five elements, the most impressive Banh Tet is the one with five colours. It’s well wrapped to ensure that, after being cut, each layer presents a colourful picture of purple from magenta leaves, orange from balsam apple, yellow from beans and white from rice.
Cakes covered with leaves are normally not cut by knife or scissors but by its wrapping string, to make a sharper cut and it’s also more convenient as well.
Most salty cakes have seafood fillings, like fish and shrimp, and must be eaten with mixed fish sauce, which gives it its salty flavour. The sauce’s ingredients include fish sauce and a bit sugar, lemon (or vinegar), water, garlic, and chilli.
Explaining why this mixed fish sauce is the key to salty cakes, Mr Toan, a chef attending the Annual Folk Cake Festival in Can Tho, said: ‘The principle of “Yin and Yang” also applies to creating Vietnamese food, providing a balance that is beneficial to the body. The principle primarily concerns the “warm” and “cool” properties of ingredients. For example, seafood is considered “cool” so goes with the “warm” garlic and chilli in the fish sauce.’
Great salty cakes include Banh xeo, Banh khot (fried rice flour with shrimp on top), and Banh uot (rice noodle sheets with fried shallots and Vietnamese pork sausage). Of these, Banh xeo is the most famous, for its special taste that combines the characteristics of the traditional culinary culture of the south. The name Banh xeo derives from the ‘xeo xeo’ sound rice flour makes when fried in a pan. Saffron powder is added to the rice flour, giving it a yellow colour. As well as red chilli fish sauce, Banh xeo can also be served with green vegetables such as lettuce, herbs, coriander, and green mustard. Mrs Muoi Xiem, who represented Vietnamese folk cake cooks at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in the US and is the owner of the famous Muoi Xiem restaurant in HCMC, explained the meaning of the cake. ‘Our ancestors applied the principle of the five senses in preparing it,’ she said. ‘When you hear the “xeo xeo” sound and see the five colours (the yellow cover, white and orange filling, red sauce, and green vegetables), you smell the cake and feel it in your hands before eating it.’
Banh xeo can be found in almost all restaurants in the south and the Mekong Delta, costing around VND70,000 to 110,000 for small or big.
Sweet cakes are regarded as a type of dessert. Steamed sweet cakes include Banh bo (chewy sponge cake), Banh da lon (colourful layered cake), and Banh cung (worship cake), while Banh to ong (similar to a waffle), Banh kep (crepes), and Banh chuoi (banana cake) are grilled sweet cakes. Sweet cakes are a simple mixture of sugar, rice flour, water and coconut milk, though some just have rice flour for a sweeter taste at the end of a meal. Due to its simple components chefs often decorate sweet cakes by mixing pineapple leaves or green beans into the rice flour, to give it some colour. ‘I don’t use chemical colourings because colouring from fruit and leaves also add their fragrance,’ explained Ms Huong, the owner of a small sweet cake shop at the Ninh Kieu night market in Can Tho.
Banh da lon caught my attention with its similar shape to Heaven cake (Banh 9 tang may) in the north. Banh da lon has three layers: pineapple leaves mixed with rice flour to make a green layer, simple rice flour mixed with coconut milk for a white layer, and green beans mixed with rice flour to make a yellow layer. To get a perfect multi-layer cake, chefs must separately cook each of them. The first layer is poured into a mould and left until solid, then comes the second layer, also left until solid, then the third layer. I love to separate each layer as I eat it, to see and feel their smooth, soft textures, and take time to enjoy the scent of the pineapple leaves and the flavour of the fatty coconut milk.