Historian Le Van Lan

Vietnam’s leaf-wrapped cakes contain thousands of years of culture

Tét cakes

Since the advent of Vietnam’s agrarian culture, sticky rice has been part of our diet. It is thought to have been the first source of starch for Vietnamese people.

This explains why sticky rice is always favored over plain rice for sacred offerings during Tết (the Lunar New Year) and on death anniversaries. These culturally-rich ceremonies honor traditional values and beseech blessings from our ancestors.

For the thousands of years that Tết and death anniversaries have been observed, freshly-steamed sticky rice, with its tempting glossiness, has always earned a respected spot on every incense-lit altar, and been served on dining tables afterwards.

Recipes employing sticky rice have been passed down from generation to generation since the Hùng Kings established the nation. The first sticky rice cakes were based on two important elements – “form” and “wrapping” – shaped by the way other traditional foods were made, such as “cơm lam”. Cơm lam is an appetizing dish made by mixing water with sticky rice and placing it in a bamboo tube to be roasted (lam). The result is an aromatic, cylindrical bar of sticky rice. Influenced by these techniques, ancient Vietnamese people used leaves to wrap sticky rice into cylindrical shapes and boil (chưng) them to make an early version of a traditional sticky rice cake.

Such wrappings were inspired by the abundance of leaves found in our farming communities’ tropical and subtropical environments. Meanwhile, the cakes’ cylindrical form took root from an ancient fertility cult: for centuries, our agricultural civilization related the shape to male genitalia, thus choosing it as a symbol for fertility rites.

Tét cakes

This is how leaf-wrapped, cylindrical cakes came into existence. In Vietnam’s North, they were called “bánh Tày” (“tày” cake, as in round-edged or originating from ethnic Tày people; or “chày” cake, as in shaped like a pestle). On the other hand, people in Vietnam’s South, referred to these cakes as “bánh Tét” (cakes for the Tết holidays). Regardless of the name, these cakes testified to our rich and interesting agrarian culture.

While Hindu cultures, such as Chan Lap or Champa, used fine art and sculpture to turn images of male genitalia into worship objects called “Linga”, Vietnamese people chose to express beliefs about reproductive health through delicious and hearty cakes!

Until 1945, residents of Thanh Dinh village, near the Hung Temple complex in Phu Tho province, still performed a unique fertility rite during every Tết festival. They would carry a massive bánh Tàycake to a rock with an oval fissure on a hill in their village and push the cake into the fissure three times. This ritual was called “pushing the pestle into the hole”. Finally, they would toss the cake to onlookers, who would try to “snatch” it. Whoever managed to “snatch” the cake was predicted to have good luck procreating and giving birth.

According to the ancient book “Lĩnh Nam chích quái” (Selection of Strange Tales in Linh Nam), it was not until the 15th century that cylindrical “bánh Tày” transformed into the square version now called “bánh Chưng”.

Chưng cake

As the dominant belief system at the time, Confucianism gave bánh Chưng a new interpretation: The cake now symbolized the Earth – or Mother Nature, according to our concept of “round sky – square earth”. From then on, leaf-wrapping came to bear a new symbolic meaning, being associated with the magical world of trees, green forests, and vegetation that protects the Earth – our Mother Nature.

In this new form, this cake and its leaf-wrappings once again became a distinctive feature of our culinary culture. Over time, various cakes were invented, thanks to the development of tools to mill other ingredients, such as plain rice, corn, sweet potatoes, and beans. Even for cakes made with these later ingredients, leaves remain indispensable. From glutinous bánh Nếp made from sticky rice flour to chewy bánh Tẻ made from plain rice flour, or crispy bánh Bột lọc made from tapioca flour, there are endless treats that come wrapped in green leaves.

Leaf-wrapped cakes in Vietnam's South
As you enjoy leaf-wrapped cakes during this Spring Festival, don’t forget that trees and plants have long protected us and contributed to exquisite dishes shaped by our long-standing traditions.