Friendship Kitchen founder Trang Nguyen Tan has fond memories of making and eating bánh tét, a savory glutinous rice roll, during her childhood in Vietnam. The night before Lunar New Year, Nguyen Tan’s family and neighbors would gather to make the dish together in a time-consuming process: They would soak mung beans overnight, layer them with pieces of pork belly and glutinous rice, and roll the whole thing together inside banana leaves. The crowd would bind the little banana leaf parcels tightly with a deft series of knots, then boil them for several hours. “We would cook it outside in a giant pot over a big fire,” Nguyen Tan says. “Little kids would be running around. It was really fun.”
The dish is one of the staple foods eaten by Vietnamese people during Lunar New Year, even sharing its name with the holiday, Tết. Tét is a homophone, meaning “sliced,” which is how the cylindrical cake is served, often cut using the same string that it’s tied with. Some fry the slices, creating crispy edges. Dưa món, a mixture of green papaya, carrot, daikon, and chiles pickled in fish sauce, often accompanies bánh tét, with the pickled side dish offsetting the richness of the pork belly.
Portland has a large Vietnamese community, so bánh tét can be found across the city, from pre-made versions sold at Vietnamese grocery stores year-round to ones prepared at local Vietnamese delis. Last year, Friendship Kitchen and Stem Wine Bar co-owners Trang and wife Wei-En served bánh tét at Alouette — their French restaurant which they have since converted to a second location of Friendship Kitchen — as part of a Lunar New Year prix fixe meal. This Lunar New Year, they will share the dish again, but are planning to include it in a sampler of other dishes, a nod to how Trang grew up eating it.
“We would usually eat it as a part of a whole abundant spread,” Nguyen Tan says. “We have bánh tét, thịt kho, pickled mustard greens, and stuffed bitter melon. Each dish has a meaning...like the word for bitter melon means ‘suffering,’ so if you eat that, you won’t suffer.”
The glutinous rice is traditionally available in two shapes, although it contains the same ingredients. In Southern Vietnam, the rice cake is rounded into a burrito-like shape, while northerners prefer a square shape that is called bánh chưng.
“For me, this cake, how it’s packed together, symbolizes togetherness,” Nguyen Tan says.
Friendship Kitchen will serve bánh tét at both locations for a weeklong period around Tét, which falls on Saturday, February 10. Follow Friendship Kitchen’s Instagram for more information as it becomes available.