Published on Monday, 18 June 2018 16:00
Written by Mervin Lee. Photos by Mervin Lee.
The fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar is a day of great importance in Chinese communities all over Asia.
Celebrated as Tết Đoan Ngọ in Vietnam and Duanwu Jie (端午节) in Chinese, the day is widely celebrated by numerous cultures with several purposes. In Vietnam, Tết Đoan Ngọ honors mother Au Co, the legendary fairy figure who married king Lac Long Quan of dragon descent and produced an egg pouch which hatched a hundred successors that became known as the Bách Việt, the ancestors of all Vietnamese people.
In Japan, the day is now celebrated according to the modern Gregorian calendar, on the 5th of May, and is known as Kodomo no Hi (こどもの日), or Children’s Day in English. In the western world, it is better known by the name Dragon Boat Festival, an reference to the traditional boat races that Chinese communities organize to mark the day.
Different cultures celebrate the special day in a variety of ways for different reasons, but there is one universal similarity: leaf-wrapped rice dumplings. Chinese legend has it that a patriotic minister and poet by the name of Qu Yuan committed suicide in a river when his nation, the Chu, was captured and defeated by the Qin king, who then established the first unified empire in Chinese history. The people recognized Yuan’s love of his country and tossed rice dumplings from their boats in hopes that ravenous fish would eat them instead of his body. Their boats became the basis for the dragon boats of Duanwu traditions.
The rice dumplings are now known by an assortment of names: bánh ú in southern Vietnam, bánh tro or bánh gio in northern Vietnam, bánh bá trạng to some Chinese-Vietnamese. In our neighboring cultures, the rice-based treat has many names, such as zongzi (粽子) or bazhang (肉粽) in Mandarin and Fujianese, and chimaki (粽) in Japan.
Saigoneer recently visited cô Cẩm and cô Trân of Phung Hung Market, hoping to get a glimpse of the taste and tradition.
“I’m of Cantonese descent, we’ve been making these dumplings since my ancestors came.” She exclaimed. “We fill them with pork, salted eggs, lotus seeds, mushroom, chicken and mung beans. The vegetarian ones are made with ash water and red beans.”
The result was neither greasy nor overwhelmingly salty; it was as though all the ingredients had morphed into a single, new and delicious entity.
“We boil the dumplings for more than eight hours after wrapping the ingredients in bamboo leaves. It’s painstaking. Người Tiều (Teochews) used to saute the raw sticky rice with lard, soy sauce, dried shrimp and other ingredients. I guess we don’t do that anymore because it makes the dumplings rather oily. Those were very tasty, the real Chinese bá trạng! I just call mine bánh ú.”
We were tipped off by knowledgeable locals about a bá trạng-making celebrity, cô Phượng. With her home nestled deep within District 11 near to Dam Sen Park, we braved the blazing Saigon sun and chaotic traffic on a pilgrimage to discover the “queen of all Saigon rice dumplings.”
“We’ve done this for three generations, only four days every year for maybe almost 80 years,” cô Phượng shared in Vietnamese. “For our largest and most premium dumplings, we use a total of twelve ingredients ranging from the simple stuff such as mung beans, chicken and pork to the good stuff such as abalone and even shark fin. We make almost everything from scratch…even the dried shrimp. We don’t use any chemicals or preservatives, I roast the chicken and pork in my own ovens.”
It was an impressive sight. Each of Phượng’s bánh bá trạng weighs almost a kilogram. They are cooked for at least ten hours and sold in pairs for auspiciousness. Her dumplings resemble bánh chưng. I asked why it was made as a square rather than a typical pyramid as with most traditional chinese bá trạng.
“Well, because the Vietnamese love it this way. To be honest, back in the old days our dumplings were very simple when only the Chinese consumed them. Now I have more ethnic Vietnamese than Hoa customers. People are becoming more affluent, they want the best in these dumplings. They use these as offerings before consuming them.”
“We don’t use the ‘pure’ chinese stuff like chestnuts and sausages these days It’s hard to achieve consistency with those things. A bad chestnut can ruin the entire dumpling and it’s hard to tell before it’s cooked.”
The truth was indeed bittersweet. Food and culinary habits adapt and transform according to changing preferences and regional influences. What defines traditional and authenticity? The soul. When we asked cô Phượng about the secret behind good food, she left us with a sliver of wisdom: “Nghĩ ngon là mình làm.” (If it’s tasty, we make it.)