Thursday, July 18, 2013

bánh ít trần: savory vietnamese mochi filled with pork, shrimp, mung bean and woodear mushrooms

banh it tran

banh it tran

Growing up, I was never really a picky eater. I was exposed to an array of food and delicacies that would make most Americans cringe - and to be honest, I am proud of it. To me, food is more than just sustainability or sustenance, it is a very intimate experience. Whether or not you are trying something new or different, each bite heightens your senses and triggers memories and feelings that you may have long forgotten or sometimes even tried hard to forget. It fulfills you in so many ways that nothing else in this world can. Food has the ability to remind you of your past and to consider the future, all while savoring the moment.

The dynamic of food in my early childhood was an interesting one. My mother didn't cook a lot. When she would, it would be in large batches of soups or stir-frys that we would eat for the whole week (or until we got sick of it). In elementary school, she turned to McDonald's for their daily specials (cheeseburger and chicken nugget days were my favorite), and then eventually she moved onto the much less complicated bottled spaghetti sauce or frozen Costco food to sustain us. Sometimes she would make more authentic Vietnamese recipes if either my brother or I requested it, but for the most part, she stuck with simple dishes that my very American step-father could stomach. And since everyone had different schedules, we never ate dinner as a family.

The only time I really remember eating homemade Vietnamese food on a daily basis was when my grandmother came to live with us when my little brother was born. She would make vegetarian Vietnamese food that I would often enjoy with her while we sat on stools at the breakfast nook while watching TV together. I look fondly onto the moments when my grandmother and I used to bond over simple dishes like plain rice porridge and sugar or fermented bean curd with a simple on-choy stir-fry. After my grandmother moved out, I was back to the same old frozen food and spaghetti option again. Even though my mother and I would make our way out to Garden Grove about twice a month to stock up on Vietnamese food from the take-out shops, it was never enough. The only comforting Vietnamese food that I knew how to make was rice porridge.

banh it tran

As all young adults do, when I moved out, I found myself trying to find my identity. Somewhere along my journey, I was so consumed with being something or someone else that I forgot about my cultural heritage. I forgot about Vietnamese food. The only Vietnamese food that I would have was the occasional Pho (which I hope everyone knows is not the only kind of Vietnamese food out there). While browsing a Chinese gift/book store one day, I came across a Vietnamese cookbook. As I flipped through the pages, I saw images of the food that I used to eat as a very young child and that was when the nostalgia just came flooding back. I immediately bought the book, and that was how my journey to create traditional Vietnamese dishes with my own two hands began.

My dad is originally from Central Vietnam, and so for special occasions or parties, we would cater large orders of Central Vietnamese tapas or small bites from various food to-go shops and caterers. It was during these gatherings when I learned to love some of these rather particular Vietnamese dishes such as bánh bèo, bánh ít trần, and bánh bột lọc. I loved each and every one of those dishes. Though basically the same ingredients, each one was meticulously prepared in a different way that made the over all experience unique. I think one of the interesting things about the food from Hue (or Central Vietnam) is that it's very carefully crafted. It requires someone with out a lot patience, a lot of skill, and a lot of careful work to create these beautiful little dishes - what Vietnamese people like to characterize as having "khéo tay" or nimble fingers.

how to: banh it tran
how to: banh it tran

Bánh ít trần is a fairly simple dish. The inside is a nhân or filling of peppered stir-fried pork belly or ground pork, shrimp, mung beans, and woodear mushrooms with a fairly thick, chewy glutinous rice dumpling skin. What you incorporate into your filling is purely by choice. I have seen people omit the mung bean, the shrimp, substitute the pork with ground chicken, etc. Overall, the one thing that doesn't change is how the meat inside of the filling is cooked with fish sauce, pepper, and little bit of sugar. Once mixed with the mung bean, the filling is full of flavor and texture. The mung bean itself has a very mild sweet bean flavor, while the shrimp offers a bit of a chew, the mushrooms offer a delicious crunch, and the pork is succulent and fatty with a bit of peppery punch. The skin of the dumpling is slightly salty yet extremely soft, chewy, and tender.

Though it is a seemingly simple dish, it does require some work and practice to form these little balls. It isn't exactly a difficult recipe- it just requires a little extra patience. I do believe that there is a perfect ratio when it comes to the amount of dough versus the amount of filling. To me, the outside of the mochi should be just enough to cover the filling without being too thin or weak, and without being too thick and chewy. What I have found is that the the mochi dough should be the same size as your filling. This yields the perfect 1:1 ratio in filling and wrapper. Unfortunately, this ratio isn't the easiest to perfect. If you are making this for the first time, take your time, and don't get frustrated. You will get the hang of it!

banh it tran
banh it tran

For me, the end result is worth every ounce of work.

banh it tran

savory vietnamese mochi filled with pork, shrimp, mung bean, and woodear mushrooms

yields 18-24 pieces

1 recipe savory mochi dough (recipe follows)
1 recipe filling, divided into 18-24 balls (recipe follows)
banana leaves, cut into 18-24 squares
nuouc mam hue (recipe follows)
dried baby shrimp, finely minced and dry fried in a nonstick pan
scallion oil

Over high heat, boil water and prepare your steamer baskets.

Pinch a off a piece of the dough that is roughly the same size as your filling. Roll the piece of dough into a uniform ball. Press the dough ball between the ball of your hands to create a flat disk. While rotating the disc, flatten the edges more so that the edges are thinner than the middle until the disc is twice the diameter of the filling ball (this allows the middle to hold the weight of the filling). Place the filling ball in the middle of the disc. With your fingers, carefully fold the dough around filling. Using your thumbs and finger tips, press the edges of the disc towards the top of the filling until the disc meets, take great care to cover the entire filling without ripping. Roll the ball again until there are no seams. With your fingers oil a piece of banana leaf and place your rolled ball on top. Though completely optional (it looks better this way) gently press down at the ball so that it becomes slightly irregular in shape.

for your reference and pinning pleasure. :)

To cook, place the prepared mochi into your steamer basket. Be sure to allow at least an inch and a half between each ball so that the steam can evenly distribute while it is cooking. Cook on high heat for 12-15 minutes or until dough is cooked through. Be careful not to overcook, otherwise it may flatten.

To eat, top the bánh ít trần with the minced baby shrimp and scallion oil. Enjoy with fish sauce of choice.

for the filling

1/2 bag of split and peeled mung beans, cleaned very well and soaked overnight
1/4 cup woodear mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes
1/2 lb shrimp, shelled and deveined, chopped
1/2 lb ground pork/chopped pork belly/ground meat of your choice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste
1-2 tablespoons water, or as needed

Steam the mung beans for 15-20 minutes or until it is fluffy, set aside to allow to cool. Place the cooled mung beans into the bowl of your food processor and pulse several times until the mung bean is ground. Set aside.

Finely mince the woodear mushrooms.

Heat one tablespoon of oil (not necessary if you are using pork belly or a fatty ground pork) on high heat in your wok or nonstick pan. Stir fry the pork until it turns white and is half way cooked. Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar. Add the chopped shrimp and stir-fry until the sauce thickens. Add in the black pepper and adjust seasonings to suit your taste. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, combine the mung bean, woodear mushrooms, cooled meat mixture, and 1 tablespoon of water. Mix to combine. Test to see if the consistency of the filling is right by scooping a spoonful of the mixture and attempting to roll a ball. If the ball crumbles while you are rolling, add a little more water. Doing this is an extremely crucial step to make it a lot easier for you to roll the outer skin! Add water 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture holds together when rolled. Divide the filling into 18-24 equal pieces, roll them into a ball, and set aside.

for the savory mochi dough

1 lb bag of glutinous/sweet rice flour
up to 1-3/4 cup of warm water
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons oil

Whisk together the glutinous rice flour and salt in a large bowl. Create a "well" in the middle of the flour and pour in half of the water and the oil. With clean hands, begin kneading your dough. The dough will be very wet at first, but well be quickly absorbed. Continue to add the water slowly until the dough is soft, uniform, and pliable. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 10 minutes. Knead the dough again and add water 1 tablespoon at a time if needed. To test if the dough is ready, break off a small piece, and try to form a disk. If the dough breaks or has deep cracks on the edges, it needs a little more water. Be careful not to add too much water at a time, or else the dough will become soggy. Keep the dough covered with plastic wrap as you work to keep the moisture in.

for the dipping sauce (nuoc mam hue)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
vietnamese/thai bird's eye chili peppers to taste

Stir the fish sauce, sugar, and water until combined. Add chopped chili to taste. To be honest, I make this completely by taste. NOTE: I like a slightly more pungent fish sauce taste so I tend to add a little bit more fish sauce. But the basic recipe is a 1:1:1 ratio. I also make this in large batches so that I can have it ready for other dishes. Prepared fish sauce lasts in the refrigerator for... ever.


  1. I've been thinking about this, forgetting one's cultural heritage for a moment. Though some parents are so Asian, their kids end up being raised so not-Asian and super American. I'm worried about moving out before I get to learn recipes from my mom, because I can't imagine trying to replicate a taste from my childhood out of a recipe I'd find online. My boyfriend's Vietnamese and I eat at his house a lot so I laughed to myself when I read "nuouc mam". His situation was/is the same. Since he was young, his mom barely cooked so his dad would buy instant food, and even now, everyone at home has conflicting schedules so they never have meals together, which is pretty different from me and my family. We're really tightly knit, though my younger siblings (we're approx 10 years difference in age) can be pretty irresponsible and sassy.

    THANK YOU for this. My boyfriend always asks me what I want to cook, and sometimes nothing comes to mind. I never think to look up a Vietnamese recipe because we usually make non-Asian food, but I do always find myself looking around my kitchen for things that I'd find at my boyfriend's house instead. I'm starting to cook on my own a lot more, so I'm pretty excited!

    P.S. Man, you really rolled that ball of mochi perfectly. It looks so smooth. I don't know, I just had the urge to point that out because wow.