This Lunar New Year, Banh Chung Ties Us All Together
Wrapping banh chung to celebrate an unusual Vietnamese Lunar New Year, together but apart.
Throughout my childhood, my grandparents' kitchen was a constant bustle, but in the month leading up to Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year), the preparations would ramp up to a right frenzy. When Grandpa inserted the extra leaves into the kitchen table to extend it to its full 8-foot length, I knew it was banh chung-making day. Placed in the center of the table were giant colanders of sweet rice, plump from an overnight soak, tubs of slices of center-cut pork belly streaked with ribbons of fat and pungent with black pepper and fish sauce, fragrant sauteed shallots, buttery steamed mung beans, and banana leaves, piles of them, harvested from every relative's backyard.
My aunts would arrive and take their stations, beginning to line wooden banh chung molds with banana leaves and fill them with rice, pork, mung beans, and shallots. Grandma and Grandpa were in charge of closing and binding the parcels with twine. By dusk, they would have wrapped 30 to 40 banh chung, which were the size of giant square bricks, thick as Catholic bibles.
Once wrapped, the banh chung were packed into a 60-quart pot filled with water. The pot was too big to sit on the kitchen stove, so we set it on a propane burner in the backyard, where it would take all night to cook. On the following morning, Grandpa would take a banh chung out of the cooking liquid and cut it in half. If the cook was successful, the cross-section would reveal that the separate rice grains had melted and fused together into a cake that encased the savory filling. He'd cut a little wedge for me to taste: Tender rice permeated with rich pork fat and aromatic with sweet shallots. We'd look at each other and laugh at the delight reflected in our faces. Another successful banh chung season, another return of spring.
I think of my grandparents often, especially around Tet. I still remember the meditative pleasure of spending all day making banh chung together, even if the details became more and more fuzzy with each passing year. After I came out to my grandparents, Tet was hard. I eventually opted out of family gatherings rather than endure the hostility of conservative, homophobic relatives. In 2013, I decided to start my own banh chung gathering to access the same joy, but this time, beyond blood and ethnic ties. I especially wanted a gathering that was queer-centric (but not exclusive) and a space to strengthen bonds between other women of color.
A handful of queer and straight friends came together for our first gathering. From there, it grew and grew. Two years ago, in 2019, I decided to give our informal group a name—the Banh Chung Collective—and to share our day of banh chung making with the public; I was stunned when 120 people signed up. Last year, with the sponsorship of Red Boat Fish Sauce, we expanded the event into a four-city tour. Over 400 showed up.
The year 2021 was supposed to bring a bigger tour for the collective—more cities, more participants. Then Covid changed our lives and large gatherings were no longer an option.
As I thought of how we could adapt, I was reminded that the history of banh chung-making in the US is one marked by adaptation and ingenuity. When arrowroot leaves weren't available, Vietnamese immigrants like my grandparents, who lived in California, turned to banana leaves to wrap banh chung. In states where fresh banana leaves weren't available, Vietnamese households used a clever combination of plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and green food dye to effect the color of arrowroot leaves. Sometimes the sweet rice wasn't the best quality. The factory farm pork in Styrofoam trays didn't taste like a freshly slaughtered pig. The fish sauce and black pepper weren't the good kind from Phu Quoc. There's a lot of heartache in the stories of these early years of adjusting to a new country while also trying to cope with losing family members to the war. But I also hear pride in people's recountings of their endless hacks to make Tet happen amidst a freezing Pennsylvania or Massachusetts winter. They had survived to greet yet another Tet and to welcome the spring with all its benedictions and promise.
And the collective itself has adapted over and over since its first gathering: We've made banh chung in tamale pots. We once made an Elvis banh chung with bananas and bacon cured with Red Boat fish sauce. Our current preferred cooking vessel is the Instant Pot. With the approach of this Lunar New Year, and the pandemic still ravaging communities across the globe, we've moved the collective online with interactive Zoom classes on February 6th and 7th, with an option to pick up take-home kits prepared by partner restaurants in California, Texas, and New York.
This is not how we envisioned the start to the Year of the Ox. But I'm not fussed. I am thankful for technology that allows the Banh Chung Collective to still connect at an ever-expanding virtual table and wrap banh chung together, but apart.