Been to a Vietnamese wedding banquet? If so, you must have tried banh giay, a white, flat round cake made of glutinous rice with or without mung beans inside.
The white, “chubby” cakes, which are packed neatly in either green dong leaves or banana leaves, are often served on special occasions, including New Year.
The best product is said to be from Quan Ganh Village, about 15 kilometres from central Ha Noi. Villagers deliver their specialty all over the country, where it is served up in restaurants, parties or used as a quick and convenient item for breakfast.
Nowadays, when one has a chance to pass by Quan Ganh on Highway 1A, they will notice booths displaying layer upon layer of banh giay.
Quan Ganh was once the place where students from different regions rested before heading to the royal capital to take the national exam, the most anticipated and important one in the life of students in feudal time. This cakes formed part of the diet of students before they took the exam.
How the villagers acquired the skill of making these cakes is a moving story about the warm hearts of the people here.
It is said in the old days, there was a beggar passing by Quan Ganh. He rested in the village to seek accommodation. Despite the beggar’s dirty and tattered appearance, villagers treated him very well. Being moved by the warm welcome, the beggar taught the villagers to make banh giay.
Over the years, the villagers have not only preserved the tradition, but boosted the reputation of Quan Ganh banh giay in other parts of the country.
A banh giay making competition held annually in Hoai Duc District of Ha Noi. Making banh giay is a tribute to the ancestors of Vietnamese people
Banh giay is made from glutinous rice.
It is tedious work and the villagers must wake up early. The work requires several people. One is in charge of steaming the glutinous rice, the other mashes steamed mung beans by hand with a mortar and shape it into small balls.
The rice is soaked overnight then steamed in the morning and ground and shaped into flat, round patties. These are finally stuffed with the mung bean ball and wrapped in dong leaves.
Each step must be done quickly so that the cakes are ready for sale in the morning. In the old days, locals had to ground steamed rice by hand yet now it is done by machine.
There are three types of banh giay – a sweet one with sugar, mung beans and dried coconut inside; a salted one with salted mung beans, pork fat and pepper inside; and one without filling. The last is often served with Vietnamese pork sausage.
The aroma of glutinous rice blended with dong leaves lingers when after the first bite.
An old version of origin of banh giay dates back several centuries. The story is so well known because it is mentioned in textbooks for secondary schools.
Legend has it that more than 2,000 years ago, the sixth Hung King wanted to find a person to succeed him. He gathered the princes and said he would give the throne to the one who could offer him a dish that would delight him and expressed filial piety.
Many princes sought a dish that could delight their king. Among them was, Lang Lieu, the 18th prince, whose mother died when he was small and had to struggle without help.
One day Lang Lieu dreamt of a saint instructing him to make a square and a round cake made from rice, as rice is the indispensable staple of Vietnamese people.
Lang Lieu followed his dream, offering the king the two cakes (one square-shaped and one round-shaped), which symbolised the sky and the earth and depicted the great gratitude of the child to his parents.
While others siblings offered the king luxury food, Lang Lieu won the heart of the king with his simple dishes. He was chosen to be the next emperor.
Since then, Vietnamese people have offered the two cakes at New Year and special occasions. This are also two indispensable cakes presented on the altar on the memorial day of the Hung Kings.
Making banh giay is a tribute to the ancestors and parents of Vietnamese people. Banh chung (square cake) and banh giay symbolise the simplicity and deep appreciation of the descendents to heaven, etc and their ancestors.