How welcoming Lunar New Year with bánh tét can connect us to our Vietnamese roots
The significance we bring to eating and making this celebration staple
When families all over the world observe the first day of Vietnamese Lunar New Year, a large part of the celebration — Tết, short for Tết Nguyên Đán — centres around food. And though each household may have their own feasting menu, the staple found across shopping (or cooking) lists is bánh tét.
"It feels weird if you don't eat it," said Linh Lê Kim, a software developer who lives in Montreal. During pre-COVID times, her family would dress up and gather for Tết, everyone taking photos with hoa mai (Mai flowers) and children practising before reciting wishes to their elders to receive lì xì (lucky money in red envelopes). They'd sit down to a meal of traditional foods that include thịt kho (braised pork and eggs in coconut water), củ kiệu (pickled spring onion bulbs) and bánh tét.
As someone with a sweet tooth, Lê Kim enjoys many of the celebratory treats like mứt dừa (candied coconut ribbons) and bánh ít nhân dừa (rice cakes with coconut filling), but her mother always stressed the significance of bánh tét during this holiday. Made from glutinous rice and packed with different types of filling (the savoury version contains mung beans and pork, while the sweet one features banana), it can make you full easily. To start the year on a full stomach is, of course, about the idea of abundance. "[At] the start of the new year … that's what you want," said Lê Kim.
When I was younger, I never asked my parents why we ate certain dishes during Tết; bánh tét was just one among many customary and quaint items they bought for the celebrations. It was only last year that I realized how much of that comfort and familiarity I took for granted when Steven Dinh gifted me two logs of bánh tét made by his mother, Lily Dinh — his family runs a tailor shop and a Vietnamese food joint in Toronto, and he was eager to let people try their version. As I peeled away the wrapper, releasing the fragrance of the sticky rice fused with the grassy note of the banana leaves, it suddenly hit me: I'd never had bánh tét for Tết outside of Vietnam before. And I certainly never expected to find it in a city thousands of miles away.
According to the book Rice and Baguette: A History of Food in Vietnam, bánh tét is a variation of bánh chưng, which is said to date back to the era of the Hùng kings (who, according to legend, ruled Vietnam from 2,879 to 258 BCE). Bánh chưng, also enjoyed for Lunar New Year and also made from glutinous rice, mung beans and pork belly, is square in shape. While the process of making it has stayed the same throughout history, it eventually became cylindrical in central and south Vietnam. People came up with a variety of fillings and changed its name to bánh tét, where "tét" means "sliced" or "cut" — no knife is needed to slice the cake; one can just use the strings that it comes tied with.
Cultural anthropologist Nir Avieli observed that the rice-heavy wrap is emblematic of Vietnam's rice growing culture: the way the rice fields in the countryside encircle the livestock and legume patches that are tended to close to home. The leaf wrapping imparts its colour onto the glutinous rice, a green reminiscent of rice fields. As people display the cake on altars and eat it during Tết, a time of hope and rebirth of nature, they remember their ancestors and express gratitude to Mother Nature and her bounty.
Coming upon Avieli's interpretation was my aha moment, taking me back to hot and humid afternoons spent helping my grandmother prepare the cake. We liked our bánh tét sweet and rich, and everything we needed — from banana leaves to rice to coconut milk — was within walking distance from our tiny cottage in a southwestern province in the Mekong Delta.
As society evolves and lifestyles change, bánh tét's agrarian connection is perhaps less apparent, yet having it for Tết is an enduring tradition that transcends time and geography.
Kimberly-Ann Trương, a Toronto-based actor, has eaten bánh tét made by her parents for as long as she can remember. They learned the craft from their mothers in Vietnam and carried it with them to Prince Rupert, B.C., where they have continued the tradition over the past 30 years.
In earlier days, they couldn't find banana leaves, so they used a milk carton to help shape the cake and aluminum foil as the wrapper. The types of banana and glutinous rice they used in Vietnam weren't available either, but they made do with what they had, dutifully assembling the cylindrical bundles Trương knew was synonymous with the new year. Nowadays, the family can source everything they need to make a proper bánh tét.
Lily Dinh has been making her version of the sticky rice cake for the past 30 years, too — perfecting it as she goes. "When I first made it, I wasted a few bags of glutinous rice," Dinh said, citing stomach aches from under-cooking in early trials. "But after each time, I made adjustments and re-calculated," Dinh chuckled.
For Tết, her family feasts on pan-fried bánh tét slices paired with pickled mustard greens, in addition to thịt kho and canh khổ qua (stuffed bitter gourd soup). It's a traditional menu passed down to her from her mother. "I hope [Steven] will teach his son the tradition," she told me.
Preparing bánh tét is laborious, and some opt to source it ready-made. Lê Kim's family often orders theirs through a family friend — or their friends. If you live in Montreal, Lê Kim suggests checking out the following merchants (though she notes availability can vary and advises calling ahead): Marché Oriental St-Denis, Miss Bánh-mì, Hoang Oanh Sandwich Vietnamien St-Denis and Marché Hùng Phát — or Local 88, a Facebook group where Asian food business owners in the greater Montreal region list their products. Trương notes people can pick up bánh tét at larger Asian grocers in Toronto or Vancouver, or at smaller markets like Henlong Market in Surrey, B.C.
Still, Lê Kim, who spent periods of her childhood in Vietnam, finds the marking of the occasion more muted in Canada when compared to the elaborate month-long affair that is Tết in Vietnam. As a result, she said, you hold on to "the few things that could somehow connect you to … the actual, real celebration of Tết."
Without lion dance performances or flower festivals to usher in the new year, the uplifting spirit of Tết is distilled into bánh tét. In a sense, the humble rice cake becomes a culinary artifact that reminds us of our Vietnamese heritage.
Indeed, seeing bánh tét in its intricate leaf wrapping and feeling its heft in my hands fills me with much joy and optimism. After another tumultuous year, it's time to reset and move forward. As I sink my teeth into the buttery mung beans and rich pork belly, I'll think of better times ahead. Like the families that have shared their stories with me, I can then start the Year of the Tiger on a full stomach, regardless of how it unfolds.
Giao Chau is a writer based in Toronto. You can find her work at giao-chau.com.