Taking no prisoners. Including herself.

Hello, Hanoi
(Part 7 of Many)

The week leading up to Têt, I was invited by my friends Bắc and Hà to help make banh trung chay, or “square cakes” at their pagoda. These are cakes made out of mung beans and rice, traditionally eaten during the lunar new year. The pagoda where they attend is the only one in Hà Nội that follows the philosophy of Thích Nhat Hành. Of course, I was honored and excited.

Typically, banh trung is made with meat by each family, but at the Buddhist temples special vegetarian (“an chay”) cakes are made by the monks and volunteers.

I was shown (and tried) every step of the process — from using a straw basket and water to “bathe” and de-hull the mung beans, cooking the beans down to a paste, adding in shaved coconut, forming balls of “dough”, shaping each ball into a flat square, and then taking those squares, placing them in between two layers of uncooked rice flavored with a green herb related to ginger, wrapping it all up inside 3 banana leaves, and tying it off with twine. These packages were then tied into pairs, stacked into a 3-foot-tall kiln, and cooked over a massive fire. The steaming cakes were then dunked in cold water, and lined along the wall to cool–

Bang trung chay, ready to eat.

What I seemed to be best at, and where my help was most desired, was in the square-forming stage. I situated myself cross-legged on the grass mat that had been layed down on the floor, and was handed a small, wooden bench, a dull chef’s knife, and pair of thin plastic gloves.

A couple of large, shallow metal bowls containing pyramids of pre-formed bean-paste-balls sat to our right. I was shown how to grab a ball, center it on my bench, tap the top to squish it down, wack the side to form a straight edge, and then rotate the ball until each side was perfectly straight: a square.

Tap, tap, tap; whack, whack, whack; turn.

Once my ball had been transformed into a beautiful square pancake, I carefully slid my knife under it’s belly, lifted, and with grace placed it on maroon plastic platter to our left. 1 down, 5,472 to go.

Grab a ball.
Tap, tap, tap; whack, whack, whack; turn.
Tap, tap, tap; whack, whack, whack, turn.
Tap, tap, tap; whack, whack, whack; turn.
Tap, tap, tap; whack, whack, whack, turn.
Lift square, place down. Grab a ball.

It was a special meditation. After an hour of this, I attempted to learn the art of banana leaf wrapping, but to no avail. The Thầy (“master” or “teacher”) looked at my wrapping job and laughed. “Your square cakes not square!” I was demoted back to ball-wacker.

Eventually, though, I settled into my job of being square-girl. After about 3 hours, I got faster and more efficient.

Grab ball.
Tap; whack; turn.
Tap; whack; turn.
Tap; whack; turn.
Tap; whack; turn.
Lift, place. Grab ball.

I got really into it. In fact, I got so good, I could tap, whack, and turn out so many squares that I then had time to twine together the wrapped cakes, or even carry the now-tied pairs, a dozen at a time, to the kiln. Having stocked the wrappers with plenty of squares, I would stand shoeless on the mat and survey the landscape — where was there a backlog in labor? — and place myself at that station to help.

When we broke for lunch, all 15 of us split a couple of finished square cakes. They tasted like teamwork.

The flavor of the cakes themselves are light, slighty spicy, simple — really nothing extraordinary. But to taste one after having witnessed and participated in the complex production deepened my enjoyment, made them rich with meaning, and I felt instantly connected to the cake, the process, and the other people.

For my efforts of 7 hours on the job, I was given two cakes. I thanked Thầy for the opportunity, and left, pleased as punch, knowing what I’d be having for dinner that night.

For pictures of the square cake wrapping, go here.

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