reclaiming my heritage with banh nam & cha lua

There is something so rewarding about realizing you can recreate dishes that mystified you as a child. Dishes that you loved to eat, that even just the smell of could invoke an onslaught of nostalgia, yet you could never even guess what went into them. I dug deep into my heritage amidst this past working weekend (being busy at work makes tranny a bad blogger) to try and make something special for Gina and Aaron’s heritage dinner. They have these fairly often, but this is the first one I’ve ever been party to. The idea is to bring a dish that reminds you of your heritage or somewhere you grew up. A dish that maybe your aunt or grandmother or mother used to make.

[banh nam aka flat rice flour dumplings with shrimp and scallions]

My mom never cooked traditional Vietnamese much when I was young, aside from this killer tom rim recipe, but I definitely wanted to take this opportunity to explore Vietnamese cooking a bit more. I considered making banh cuon or ga roti then I realized, while I was researching Vietnamese recipes, that there wasn’t a single recipe for banh nam, one of my favorite snacks as a child, in English, on the internet. So I had my mom translate one from Vietnamese (and altered it slightly to match my expectations). It was a risk, because I had no idea what the expect over the course of execution, but it turned out exactly as I remembered it. So here is my contribution to the English-speaking blogosphere: a recipe for banh nam, just like what you can get from the Vietnamese bakeries, courtesy of my mom and me.

Finding banana leaves is so worth it. It’s everything to this, and so many other Vietnamese dishes. The smell of steamed banana leaves is perhaps the strongest scent association I have from my childhood. (Well, that and the smell of wet asphalt.)

When I shared this with my friends they noted that it was like a Vietnamese version of tamales. They are kind of like gooey, flat tamales. But much lighter and more fragrant, in my opinion.

The Vietnamese version of the recipe tells you to smash the shrimp after you cook them. I’m not exactly sure how one is supposed to go about doing that in the traditional preparation (using a big mortar and pestle maybe, machaca-style?) — I ran the shrimp through the food processor before throwing them in the pan, and then ran them through the food processor again after cooking them, with the scallions. One could probably get away with just food processing or finely chopping the shrimp after they’ve been cooked; I’m just neurotic.

New staples for my pantry.

I used to eat these babies for breakfast, with nuoc mam. Could this be where my affinity for savory breakfast foods stems from? Are savory taste buds a product of nature, or nurture? Also, someone told me that if you’re already getting a lot of sugar from alcoholic beverages, you won’t crave sugar in your diet as much. I’ll take all three explanations.

Banh Nam
Makes about a dozen.

You need:
– banana leaves (I got them frozen at the asian supermarket and defrosted them on the counter)
– 1 lb of shrimp, peeled and deveined (it’s common for there to be some ground pork in there as well – I’d do half a pound of pork per pound of shrimp)
– scallions (about 6)
– oil, s&p for the shrimp/scallion mixture
– 1 cup of rice flour
– 3 cups of water
– 2 tbsp of tapioca flour
– 1 tsp of salt
– 1 tbsp of oil

Special equipment:
– a steaming device
– something to grind up the shrimp with (a knife and some persistence would probably do)

How to:
– Cut the banana leaves into big strips, about the width of two hands. Rinse and dry.
– Cook the shrimp in a pan with some neutral oil and s&p. Throw the shrimp into a food processor with the chopped scallions (no need to cook them in the pan; they will steam with the shrimp). Pulse the food processor until the shrimp is ground up into small bits.
– Make the flour mixture. Combine ingredients 5 through 9 (starting with the rice flour) in a bowl. Whisk well to scrape up all the tapioca flour off the bottom. Transfer this mixture to a pot, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens up into a paste. Turn off the heat.
– Assemble your banh nam. Spread 1-2 spoonfuls of the flour mixture down the center of a banana leaf. Spread a few spoonfuls of the shrimp and scallion mixture evenly over the flour mixture. Fold up the banana leaf, press down on the mixture a bit with your hands to flatten it out, and fasten the banana leaf parcel with either kitchen string or a strand of banana leaf.
– Steam until cooked through (the flour paste will be slightly translucent and green). Allow to cool. Serve with nuoc mam.

I was surprised at how much I nailed this one. Maybe it’s not the same as what you’d get in Vietnam (I wouldn’t know) but it’s certainly as good as any banh nam I’ve ever had from Little Saigon!

Cha Lua

I also made cha lua (aka Vietnamese steamed pork ham sausage thingy?) which was a bit of a grizzly affair, especially the part where I grind the gelatinous pork mixture into a paste. I pretty much followed this recipe to a T, and even deep-fried one of them to make cha chien, which I figured would appeal more to my heritage dinner audience. Now I have two more just sitting in the fridge, waiting to be used! Perhaps I’ll make banh cuon to serve it with, or some banh mi to take to work for lunch.

Cha lua had always been somewhat of a mystery meat to me growing up, but a delicious one at that. Turns out it’s just ground pork mixed with single acting baking powder, tapioca flour, water, sugar and fish sauce, ground to a very smooth texture and steamed in banana leaves. Simple enough, right? Turns out it’s fairly fool-proof.

The Ravenous Couple’s recipe calls for twice-ground lean pork. I unfortunately did not have access to a butcher willing to perform such a task, but I made sure to grind up the meat real good in my trusty new Cuisinart 12 cup food processor before forming the pork mixture into loaves, and the texture came out perfectly.

If you think this looks gross, you should’ve been there IRL.

Same method of cooking as the banh nam — you steam the banana leave parcels. They say that the cha lua is done cooking if it bounces when you throw it against a hard surface. I can attest that this is true.

The cha lua expands while it’s cooking, so you should be mindful of that when you’re securing the parcels. The one above was wrapped a little too tight and was bursting at the seams by the time it was done!

[cha lua]

It’s supposed to look like that.

To make cha chien, you just fry the cha lua on all sides in some oil. Et voila! A delicious Vietnamese cold cut to share with your friends! Some of my besties had previously tried cha lua once at Banh Cuon Tay Ho in downtown Oakland and were sketched out by it (I think it was the texture), but they gobbled mine up (and found it delicious) because they knew that I had made it :D. I can’t think of a higher compliment – friends not only appreciating your heritage, but trusting you and the food that you feed them.

[cha chien]

8 thoughts on “reclaiming my heritage with banh nam & cha lua

  1. Kelly Vance says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve been trying to look for a recipe for over a year now – and found only the recipe in vietnamese. Thank you soooo much for taking the time to transalate for those who are not vietnamese or doesn’t speak vietnamese. Thank you to your mom and you!!! Will definitely try this receipe!

  2. Phuong T. says:

    Thanks! I’ve been looking for this in english as well. Do you know what gives it the orange color that i’ve seen in some banh nam?

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