“First things first, let go of any expectations of perfection,” says Chef Diep Tran. “You’re here to have a good time.” She’s speaking to those nervous, but excited individuals who have never made bánh chưng, a square-shaped sticky rice dumpling with pork belly (or peanuts for vegetarians), mung beans and shallots wrapped in banana leaves. From the right amount of filling to banana leaf-wrapping techniques, assembling these little bundles can be intimidating for first-timers.
For the past seven years, a group known as the Bánh Chưng Collective, have convened to make these rice dumplings for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tết). This tradition has been passed down from one generation to another in the Vietnamese community.
Legend has it that during the Hùng Dynasty (1712-1632 BC), a dying emperor had to choose a successor amongst his many sons. To challenge them, the king declared that the son who brought the most delicious and meaningful culinary dish as an offering to the ancestors for Tết would be given the throne. Most of the sons sought exotic and luxurious foods by land and sea. Lang Liêu, the poorest of the princes, could not afford such items. He had simple ingredients: rice and pork. He worked hard to elevate these humble things into two dishes: bánh giầy (rice cake) shaped round like the moon and bánh chưng (pork stuffed rice dumpling) shaped in a square to represent the land. These offerings symbolized heaven and earth. With both taste and sentiment, the pauper son succeeded the throne. Centuries later, these dishes are still associated with the new year celebration. This story was documented in a book published in 1695 called “Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái” (“The Extraordinary Tales of Lĩnh Nam”). For generations, the bánh chưng legend has been passed down through storytelling. Similarly, the tradition of making it has too.
In Vietnam, many families and whole villages come together before the new year to make bánh chưng to share with friends and family. Over time, the practice of making bánh chưng has been challenged by political conflict and family separations. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, millions of Vietnamese people sought refuge and immigrated all around the world. For the 4.5 million Vietnamese people living overseas (known as Việt Kiều), there are many challenges in keeping traditions alive when communities may be small or scattered. Unlike other regions, Southern California has a large Vietnamese population. At over 2.1 million, half of Vietnamese people living overseas in the world are here in the counties of Los Angeles and Orange combined. Though there is strength in numbers, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any challenges to preserving culture. Over time, due to the industrialization of food and generational changes, the making of bánh chưng is a fading tradition.
The Bánh Chưng Collective keeps this tradition alive right here in Southern California. On one Saturday, the Collective gathered the 100 people in West Compton to make 400 bánh chưng at Alma Backyard Farms, a non-profit that creates urban farming opportunities with the formerly incarcerated. Since the beginning, the group strives to create an inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly space to share culture and build community. The group is organized by Chef Diep Tran of Good Girl Dinette (closed in October 2018). Her family started one of the earliest phở-serving restaurants in the United States, Phở 79 in Garden Grove. It recently won the prestigious James Beard America's Classics Award.
Throughout the day, endless cups of coffee were made by local roaster Ingin Kim of Peri Coffee to fuel the participants. From providing the space to making coffee available, Tran was both thoughtful and intentional about every detail of this event, especially the quality and sources of each ingredient used. To ensure this, Tran worked collaboratively with growers and producers to directly source almost all local ingredients:
- Pork. A whole pig came from Kong Thao, of the Thao Family Farm (Fresno, CA). This small but mighty Hmong family farm of 34 acres was founded in the early 1990s by Kong’s parents, Vang Thao and Khoua Her. Tran worked closely with Kong to select the perfect size whole pig for the event. Kong typically provides pigs for family events only, but since this was a special occasion, he extended this to the Collective. The pork was used in the bánh chưng as well as in the rice porridge and lotus root salad that was served for lunch.
- Fish Sauce. Before the event, the pork was scored and cured in Red Boat Fish Sauce for three days at Proof Bakery, owned by Korean American baker Na-Young Ma in Atwater Village. Cuong Pham, a former Silicon Valley engineer and IT consultant turned fish sauce maker, is known for the Red Boat Fish Sauce brand that started in 2011. Cuong started the company out of frustration. He could not find high-quality fish sauce in the United States. He wanted the level of quality he remembered from his uncle’s fish sauce factory while growing up in Vietnam. To start his business, he expanded a small family-run facility on the island of Phú Quốc, known as the epicenter of fish sauce making to many Vietnamese people. Similar to olive oil, there are different grades of fish sauce. Red Boat is known for their highly flavorful and concentrated first pressed fish sauce, nước mắm nhi (comparable to extra virgin-grade olive oil).
- Rice. Described as the tamale masa of bánh chưng, good rice is essential. The rice came from Koda Farms (Dos Palos, CA), a third-generation Japanese American farm founded in 1928. It’s the same rice that Tran’s grandma used for all of the bánh chưng she made in the United States. From growing to milling, Koda Farms is run and operated by siblings Ross and Robin Koda, the grandchildren of founder Keisaburo Koda.
- Banana Leaves. Alma Backyard Farm provided both the banana leaves and the location for the event. As you walk through the farm, you can see the banana trees standing tall in the backdrop.
These ingredients are layered in a banana leaf-lined square mold. Using string against the grain of the leaf, the mold is carefully flipped and removed. Wound twice on each side, the bundle of bánh chưng is neatly tied. Once each person makes four, they go into a bag with water and then vacuum sealed. Bags are pressure cooked for 45 minutes before they are ready to take home. During lunar new year celebrations, people can choose to heat up their parcels or unwrap and fry them to enjoy.
Traditions hold important values about our cultures. They remind us that we’re part of a shared history and help us come together. During this year’s convening of the Bánh Chưng Collective, this multigenerational tradition that Tran learned from her grandmother has now been passed onto 100 participants. True to the legend and traditions of making bánh chưng, this act of coming together reflects respect to our ancestors as well as the land where the ingredients came from. This Collective is more than just making food, it’s a community catalyst. It reminds us that traditions don’t have to fade, they can be re-imagined and include anyone we choose to call our family.
U.S. Census Bureau (2018). 2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates. Retrieved from https://factfinder.census.gov
Vu, H. (2016). Rice and baguette : A history of food in Vietnam (Foods and nations). London: Reaktion Books.