Hanoi’s winter is said to be incomplete without savouring banh khuc or xoi khuc.
Another reason why the dish is popular during winter is because the most important ingredient – cudweed – grows abundantly during late winter. In the first two months of the year, when an early spring drizzle envelops the villages and farms, cudweed is also harvested.The dish is a ball of glutinous rice mixed with cudweed and filled with mung bean paste and seasoned greasy pork. It is best tasted when served steaming hot, which is why it is a must-have dish during the cold winter months.
The plant grows naturally along river banks and on the edges of fields.
There are two kinds of cudweed – te (non-sticky) and nêep (sticky). Of these, te is preferred to make banh khuc as it is more flexible and fragrant.
On cold winter nights in Hanoi, street vendors are often heard shouting, “Ai banh khuc day?” (Who wants banh khuc?) on nearly every street. This is a familiar call for anyone who has lived in the capital for a long time. However, there are only two popular places serving the most authentic and delicious banh khuc in the city: Banh Khuc Quan and Banh Khuc Co Lan.
Banh Khuc Quan
“I have tried banh khuc in many places, but nowhere have I found as soft and sweet-smelling layer of steamed glutinous rice as sold in Banh Khuc Quan shop,” says Bui Tuyet Loan, a resident on Hang Bong Street.
Shop owner Nguyen Van Quan revealed that the secret to their dish, beside the right cudweed, was the Nhung glutinous rice that was grown in Vietnam’s northern provinces. The special rice, with its big grains, keeps the dish sticky even when it has cooled down. The grains do not harden even when they are refrigerated or heated in a microwave.
“The rice is then soaked in water according to a technique devised by my family, like at a particular temperature and for a particular duration. If the rice is soaked for too long, it can get crushed, and if it is not soaked enough, it might become too hard,” Quan said.
To make the dish, the cudweed is well brayed to obtain the mash liquor, which is then mixed with the glutinous powder. This is then kneaded well to create the covering layer. The filling of the dish is made with well-kneaded ground mung beans, which wraps the well-seasoned lean and fat pork.
The final product is steamed in a clay pot to ensure its taste and temperature.
Each portion is wrapped in a banana leaf before being handed over to customers. A pack of sesame and salt is given complimentary. One portion costs VND13,000 (60 US cents).
Banh Khuc co Lan
Small shops located along the streets of Hanoi have hanging signboards that read Banh khuc co Lan, another popular brand name of banh khuc in the city.
According to Nguyen Thi Lan, owner of the brand name Banh khuc co Lan, the glutinous rice and mung beans are thoroughly selected, and the filling of the rice ball contains a lot of well-kneaded ground mung bean mixed with cudweed.The recipe of banh khuc co Lan might be similar to that served in Banh Khuc Quan, but each shop has a different method of choosing the ingredients.
“The technique of cooking the mung bean is crucial,” she says. “If the mung bean is too crushed, the whole dish will become crushed and if the mung bean is hard, the whole rice ball will become friable.”
Customers who prefer a greasy taste might find their favourite banh khuc in Lan’s shop, as the fillings there contain more greasy lean and fat pork, wrapped in layers of steamed glutinous rice, mung beans and brayed cudweed. Each portion costs VND13,000, the same as Banh Khuc Quan.
Though the cudweed grows only during winter, it can be collected and dried and stored for use in banh khuc throughout the year. But it’s only in winter that the dish tastes the best, for its ingredients have been freshly harvested.
“A serving of banh khuc seems to be small, but it’s actually filling. The colours and flavours of its ingredients mix well to create its unique taste,” says Lan.
By Phuong Ha