If you are an avid traveler in Vietnam, chances are you have heard of the Banh It Towers.
The complex of stunning temple towers date back a thousand years, to the days of the Cham Dynasty. They are now a major symbol of the historical and cultural attractions in central coastal province of Binh Dinh.
What has this architectural marvel to do with food?
They were originally called the “Silver towers” by French researchers, but the more popular name, Banh It, has been passed through several generations of local residents.
Why did the locals name it after a dish then?
Surprisingly, the answer is very simple.
It is said that there was a woman named Thi Thien, who used to sell banh it at the foot of the high mountain on which the famous towers stand.
Moreover, the towers are shaped like elongated pyramids, somewhat like the cake, which is made in a rather more compact pyramidal shape.
Over centuries, banh ít (full name: banh it la gai) has become an inseparable part of Bình Dinh culture and the pride of its inhabitants.
The sticky rice cakes with a coconut and green bean stuffing wrapped in a banana leaf has become part of folklore.
A popular saying goes: "If you wish to eat banh it la gai, get married to a Binh Dinh man and enrich your life.”
While it is said to have originated in Bình Dinh Province, the cake has become a veritable specialty of the central coastal region.
The cake has five ingredients: sticky rice, la gai (ramie leaf), sugar, green beans and banana leaf.
Vo Thi Bich Ngọc, owner of the Ba Du shop in Tuy Phuoc District, which specialises in banh it la gai, said great care has to be taken through different stages to make a good cake.
“First of all, we wash the la gai (ramie leaves), boil them and grind them with a stone mortar until their green colour turns black.
“After that, we put sugar and the glutinous rice flour in the mortar and grind them with the ramie leaves. Then the three ingredients are mixed together to make the dough.
“The dough is then steamed in a big pot with fire from firewood (not gas or kerosene). When the dough is well done, we take small parts of the dough on a pair of chopsticks and dry them over burning coal, so that the cake will be dry and not sticky.”
The dough is then divided into different small parts and stuffed with green beans and shredded coconut.
“The green beans have to be soaked in water for hours and whipped before steaming. Then the well-done beans are ground and rolled into balls to be used as filling for the dough,” Ngọc said.
The banana leaves are usually quickly heated on fire or dipped in hot water to make them soft, so that it is easier to wrap the cake.
Explaining how important the dish was to locals, Ngọc sid that during death anniversaries, it is acceptable that no fish or meat was served, but banh it la gai was a must.
In traditional marriage rituals, a tray of this cake is the gift given by the bride’s family to that of the groom. This is said to showcase the culinary skill of the bride, who has made the cake together with other villagers.
Bình Dinh people are so proud of that cake that they have made a stone model and displayed it on the beach in Quy Nhon City.
Besides the sweet cake, tre (a kind of fermented pork) is another important dish for several central provinces, with each locality having its own distinct recipe.
While most of the ingredients are similar, each version is a little different – a little crispier there, a little sweeter here and a bit sour elsewhere. All versions have one thing in common: they are all delicious.
The tre in Bình Dinh has a unique shape. Covered with straw, it looks like a broomstick.
“The first time I passed through Bình Dinh on the 1A National Highway, I wondered why so many small broom sticks were hung in front of many small shops!,” recalled a smiling Ngo Thanh Mi.
“It was only later that I realised it was a familiar local dish, that delicious fermented pork was hidden inside the straw,” the Hanoian said.
Tre is made with pork ears, pig’s head, sesame, galangal root, chili and garlic.
Pork is boiled and put it into cold water to prevent it from being sticky. It is sliced into very small pieces, mixed with spices and covered with young guava leaves. After that, they are packed under layers of straw for two or three days, and the meat is fermented naturally, absorbing the spices.
The strong smell of galangal, garlic and sesame fat, the sweet and sour fermented meat and the flavour of guava leaves combine to impart a flavour that is particular to central Vietnam.
The dish, served with herbs, pickles, sliced carrots, and fish sauce, is also a must during festive days. The dish is highly favoured by men when they gather with friends to drink the local ba u da wine.
Next time you enjoy Bình Dinh’s mountains, beaches and Cham towers, sample these two delicacies to make it a really wholesome experience.