A Day of Rice Cakes for the Lunar New Year

A Day of Rice Cakes for the Lunar New Year

WEST COMPTON, Calif. — In a sunny field here in Los Angeles County, the chef Diep Tran folded a banana leaf like wrapping paper, running her fingers along the crease. As she spooned some pork jowl and rice on top, a dozen women leaned over to observe her technique.

“Not too much!” Ms. Tran said. “Don’t forget, rice expands as it cooks.”

Tet, or Vietnamese New Year, falls on Feb. 5 this year. To celebrate and prepare for the holiday, Ms. Tran gathered about 100 women to make banh chung, the rich, sticky rice cakes filled with pork, shallots and mung beans, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled until tender. The women would take home their finished banh chung to share with family and friends.

“Usually people buy it at the store because, unless you’ve made it before, it’s an unwieldy beast,” Ms. Tran said.

Ms. Tran has hosted Lunar New Year parties centered on making banh chung for years, beginning at home with a small group of Vietnamese-American friends. “Tet can be such a heteronormative space, and it’s usually very conservative,” Ms. Tran said. “I wanted to share it with progressive women, and more people of color.”

This year, the party grew so big that Ms. Tran sold tickets and set up a half-dozen pressure cookers to boil the rice cakes in a field at Alma Backyard Farms, a nonprofit farm in West Compton where formerly incarcerated people are trained to enter the workforce.

Traditional banh chung can be the size of a birthday cake and simmer all night. They are often beautifully wrapped and tied with ribbons, to be shared as gifts for the New Year. Ms. Tran’s versions were dainty parcels — they fit on the palm of your hand — and cooked through in about 45 minutes.

After watching Ms. Tran’s tutorial, the group made their own. They passed scissors back and forth, and helped each other with tricky steps, like reinforcing the parcels so that rice wouldn’t spill from the seams.

“It’s just like a tamalada,” said Hong Pham, one of a few men who attended, referring to the communal spirit and collaborative work of making tamales.

Mr. Pham, who writes a Vietnamese food blog with Kim Pham, his wife, brought a big batch of pickled vegetables. He encouraged everyone to take some home, and stepped in to help late arrivals with the process.

Many attendees had roots in Vietnam, others in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and China. Few had experience making banh chung. They chatted as they wrapped alongside their children, sisters and mothers, introducing one another and sharing their stories.

Ta-Cuc Nguyen came to the United States as a refugee in the 1970s. She remembered making banh chung in preparation for Tet in Lancaster, Pa., where it was impossible to find the leaves of an arrowroot plant used as a wrapper, or even banana leaves, a common substitute. Ms. Nguyen made do with plastic wrap brushed with a little green food coloring.

After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, thousands of Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States, fleeing persecution. Although government programs placed new arrivals throughout the country in small groups, to encourage assimilation, Vietnamese families moved to be near one another and built strongly rooted communities, particularly in California.

Ms. Tran came to the United States in 1978, as a child, and settled in Los Angeles. Her family owns the restaurant Pho 79, in Garden Grove, which was at one point a chain with locations in Los Angeles County and Orange County. She is known for her own restaurant, Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park, which closed in October.

“It’s going to be chaos,” said Ms. Tran, a few weeks before the event, as she pictured a large group working side by side. But friends helped with preparation. Na Young Ma, the owner of Proof bakery, offered her kitchen after hours as a prep space, and her walk-in for storage.

Ms. Tran bought a whole pig from Kong Thao, a farmer in Fresno, and after work on a weeknight, she and her friends got together to butcher it.

“Let’s each take a quarter and get it off the bone,” Ms. Tran said. Felicia Friesema and Cecilia Leung took the shoulders and butt, while Ms. Tran butchered the head. The meat was deeply scored and cured in fish sauce for three days.

As people filed in on Saturday, ready to wrap, tables were set up with metal molds to shape the rice cakes, banana leaves and quart containers with ingredients. Evan Kleiman, the host of the radio show Good Food on KCRW, stirred rice porridge for lunch; the social justice advocate Alice Y. Hom carried paper bags full of freshly cut kumquat branches; and Monique Truong, a novelist who had traveled for the event from New York, snipped the branches to decorate the tables.

When the banh chung were cooked, Ms. Tran handed them out and addressed the crowd, thanking all the women. She emphasized that the purpose of the Banh Chung Collective, as she calls the annual party, was to create a Lunar New Year space that built connections among women and people of color, and affirmed queer identities. Over the course of the day, they had prepared well over 400 banh chung.

Like most in the group, Ms. Truong had never made the rice cakes before, in part because it was such a project. She said she planned to eat one that day, and carry the rest to her family in Houston. For Tet, she would slip the rice cakes out of the wrappers and fry them with a smashed garlic clove, until both sides were golden and crisp.

“The way Diep thinks of the work is beautiful,” said Ms. Truong, gesturing toward the dispersing crowd. “You come together, you make something and then, you go out and share it.”

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An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the owner of Proof bakery. It is Na Young Ma, not Na Yong Ma.

Tejal Rao is the California restaurant critic at The Times and a columnist for the The New York Times Magazine, based in Los Angeles. She has won two James Beard Foundation awards for her restaurant criticism. @tejalrao

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