Sunday, December 20, 2009

Banh Tet Chuoi: Vietnamese Sticky Rice with Banana

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Out of all the different iterations of sticky rice wrapped in some type of leaf, whether it’s lotus leaf or banana leaf, perhaps my favorite sweet version is Vietnamese sticky rice with banana wrapped in banana leaf.  The sweetness of the sticky rice plays well with the coconut milk that it is cooked in.  This infusion of coconut flavor into the rice combined with banana creates a great flavor profile that can be found in a few other types of banh and che: most notably for me is banh chuoi nuong (Vietnamese banana bread).

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Another thing that I love about banana sticky rice is the fragrance.  The banana leaves give off a great leafy aroma and the sticky rice is fairly fragrant, almost akin to basmati rice.  Not only do the leaves give off a grant fragrance, but their leafiness is also imbued into the rice itself. 

To prepare the banana sticky rice, the rice must be soaked for at least a couple hours (overnight even) before cooking.  I’m not really sure why it needs to be soaked, but if I had to take a guess it’s probably because the rice is steamed rather than boiled.  Soaking the rice before steaming may give the rice the proper moisture it needs to soften when cooked. 

Then, the rice is combined with a heated sauce of coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, and salt.  Salt is so important here because it adds such a great depth and balance to the flavor of the sauce.  This coconut milk/sugar/salt is used extensively in banh and che.  Once the rice is at the consistency of a thick porridge, it’s set aside to cool.  At this point, the rice should not be cooked all the way through.   

It’s not uncommon to find black eyed peas added to the rice for texture.  I prefer banana sticky rice with black eyed peas, but I forgot to pick some up at the grocery store and was too lazy to go back.  What is uncommon, however, is the addition of cinnamon and nutmeg to the party.  As part of my many experiments making Vietnamese banana bread for my office, I added cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice to the coconut milk sauce (yes, the same coconut milk sauce used for banana sticky rice).  Apparently, the majority of the people much preferred the spiced version.  Since I was working with similar flavors with the banana sticky rice, I thought I’d experiment and see how it turned out if I added cinnamon and nutmeg this time around.  Thank goodness I found my spice grinder at the LPCS a couple weeks ago, because it allowed me to use freshly toasted and ground cinnamon.  I wasn’t too sure about using the grinder to grind nutmeg, so I stuck to the typical microplane for that.

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Once the rice is cooled and had some time to thicken even more, the fun begins.  Typically, I’ve seen banana sticky rice wrapped much thicker than I wrap mine.  Usually I’ll see them about the diameter of an average man’s forearm and maybe about 6 inches long, but I like to wrap mine in individual serving sizes.  Wrapping is fairly straightforward: a layer of rice, banana, and then another layer of rice.  Then, use the leaf itself to help shape and mold the rice.  Fold one side of the leaf over, and then fold the ends in.  What’s left is to simply roll the rice up into the remaining leaf.

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The rice packages are then steamed for about 40 minutes.  I would recommend letting the rice cool a bit until they’re warm before eating.  If you eat it piping hot, I find that the rice isn’t as sticky as when it’s cooled a little.

I have to say that the addition of spices overwhelmed the subtle flavors of sticky rice and banana leaves.  I probably won’t be experimenting with adding other spices to this dessert again.  However, the next time I make this dessert I’m going to try using pandan leaves and lotus leaves.  Although the leafy flavors of pandan leaves and lotus leaves are similar banana leaves, I prefer the subtlety and fragrance of pandan leaves and the flavor of lotus leaves over banana leaves.

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