Growing up in a household dominated by my maternal Cantonese Chinese grandma, I mostly ate Chinese and random American/Americanized foods when I was young. But occasionally, we’d get Vietnamese food, whether it was pho or bun at a restaurant, or in San Jose or Westminster when my mom would indulge and eat all the Vietnamese foods that were extremely laborious and time-consuming to make. So instead of making the food, which my mom always hated (she’s never enjoyed cooking even in the slightest and only did it out of necessity), we’d just pay money to buy and eat these things. One of these dishes that I didn’t even know the name of growing up but finally got reacquainted with recently was banh it tran. These little sticky rice dumplings that are stuffed with steamed and mashed mung bean, pork, and shrimp are a truly delicacy. They are also extremely laborious, requiring mung beans to be soaked, steamed, and mashed, then combined with minced pork and shrimp, rolled into balls, then covered with a glutinous rice dough on the outside and steamed or boiled. Finally to serve, they are topped with a pulverized dried shrimp topping, scallion oil, fried shallots, and nuoc cham for dipping and dunking. It’s also good to have them with a slide of pickled carrots and daikon. Yes, that’s right: that’s FOUR different toppings for serving! These were traditionally reserved for banquets and special occasions, but in Western countries that have a decently sized Vietnamese population, you can now find them in counts of 3-5 served and wrapped in plastic on styrofoam trays. This is how I ate them growing up; my mom would come across them at a Vietnamese bakery, bring a couple trays home, and warm them up for both of us to enjoy, as my dad and brother never really cared for them.
I came across them via a YouTube video earlier this year, and I knew I had to make them. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen them served anywhere in New York, which isn’t surprising since this is one of those dishes that isn’t really well known in Vietnamese cuisine. I finally got around to making them yesterday. It took a while, and I had to get used to working with glutinous rice flour dough again, as it’s quite tacky and you need to get it to the right texture for it to roll correctly, but it was so much fun. And when I finally tasted them, I knew it was time worth spent. I individually froze about 32 of them for eating once the baby comes; this will be a tasty part of a quick meal when I’m exhausted and covered in milk and drool. They just need to be steamed on high for about 12 minutes before eating.
This is one of those happy food memories for me growing up, though. My mom never really told me what these were called or their background or how they were made. I didn’t even know what was in them before I’d dive in, and frankly, I didn’t care. She’d just plop them in front of me, and I’d eat with her. That’s the thing about my parents: sometimes, all they’d have to do is eat something in front of me, and that’s all it took for me to want to eat the same thing. I hope I am able to pass on food passion and food traditions to little Pookie Bear when she arrives and as she grows, too.