Vietnamese cake, or banh, comes in a very wide array of flavors, styles, shapes, and purposes. Many of the cakes are sweet, like traditional Vietnamese mooncake, banh chay, and green bean cake. Others, like Vietnamese rice cake, banh ran, or banh nam, are filled with savory ingredients like pork, shrimp, and soy sauce. Most kinds of Vietnamese cake are not baked like cakes in much of the rest of the world. Instead, they are steamed, fried, or simply just compressed together and eaten raw.
Mooncake, or banh trung thu, is traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated throughout Asia. These small, round cakes are baked in fluted tins with Vietnamese letters imprinted into the bottom. When the cakes are done baking, the baker flips the tins upside-down and lifts them up, revealing a pretty little cake with an inscription on the top. Inscriptions on this Vietnamese cake often include symbols for luck, prosperity, health, and good fortune. Vietnamese mooncakes are usually covered in sweet, honeyed syrup and filled with sweet bean paste, date paste, or fillings made from ground seeds.
One example of steamed Vietnamese cake is banh chay, or vegetarian cake. These little steamed rolls start out as a simple, sticky dough primarily made from rice flour and water. The dough is cut into circles and a sweet bean paste, usually made from adzuki beans, is pressed into the center of each circle. The circles are gently pinched shut and steamed, either in a modern steaming pot or in a bamboo basket, until they hold their shape. This Vietnamese cake is often served in a sugary soup and topped with sesame seeds.
Green bean cake may sound like a savory Vietnamese cake, but it is actually very sweet. This cake is not cooked at all, but made with pasted, sweetened, green mung beans. The beans are squeezed into molds under very high compression until they hold their shape. The resulting cakes are usually wrapped in banana leaves until they’re eaten. This process is often done by hand, though Vietnamese manufacturers also make green bean cakes with machines.
A few savory kinds of Vietnamese cake are banh ran and banh nam. Banh ran is typically a ball of sesame seeds, rice flour, and some kind of savory filling deep-fried in oil. Fillings may be meat-based, like pork and shrimp, or vegetable-based, like savory beans or pickled vegetables. The second kind, banh nam, is thin sheets of rice flour and pork steamed together until they hold their shape.
One of the most important kinds of Vietnamese cake is Vietnamese rice cake. This is a savory cake that takes a long time, and many people, to make it properly. Rice, rice flour, ground pork, soy sauce, chopped onions, and beans are often carefully mixed together and placed inside banana leaves. The leaves are tied around the cake in a complicated weaving pattern. The cake is then baked for several hours. Rice cake is traditionally eaten during the New Year, making it a family effort that brings loved ones to the hearth.