The Legend of the Rice Cake | Banh Chung and Banh Giay

Rice is the most precious food item in the land and yet also the most abundant. I have created dishes that symbolize the harmony between the earth and heaven so that all of our people can enjoy

Bánh chưng and  Bánh giầy are traditional Vietnamese rice cakes which are made from glutinous rice, and are made from the same ingredients
Bánh chưng
Bánh giầy

Together they are served during the Vietnamese lunar new year (Tet) together as a symbol for the harmony between the earth and heaven. It was believed in ancient Vietnam, that the earth was square and the heaven was round. Most people offer both of these cakes to the ancestors for new year. According to the book Lĩnh Nam chích quái (Extraordinary stories of Lĩnh Nam) published in 1695, the creation of bánh chưng was credited to Lang Liêu, a prince of the last Sixth Hùng Dynasty (c. 1712 – 1632 BC).

A Page from Lĩnh Nam chích quái (wikipedia.org)

Vietnamese legend has it that the King of the 6th Hùng Dynasty could not decide which of his 18 sons should be his successor and carried out a competition in which whoever could introduce the most delicious dish would become the next ruler of the country. He gave his sons one year to prepare and each prince travelled extensively in search of rare delicacies to make that perfect dish.

However the 18th prince, Lang Liêu, who was the poorest son of the Hùng king, could not afford to travel as his brothers did and acquire such luxurious dishes. Though he was a prince by title, he was humble and lived a modest life. He stayed in the Vietnam to search for his inspiration and focused on local ingredients to create a new dish for his father.

It is said that he was visited by a deity in a dream who gave him directions for two different rice dishes:

There is nothing greater than the sky or the earth. And the rice grain is the most precious thing in the world. Now, use gao nêp (glutinous rice) to make bánh chưng, a green and square cake, symbolizing the earth. It will have a filling made of dau xanh (mung beans) and meat symbolizing plants and animals living on the earth. You will use green leaves to cover the cake, symbolising the services rendered by parents to their children. Then use ground glutinous rice to make bánh giầy, a white, dome shaped cake, symbolizing the sky.

On the last day of the lunar month, all the princes showed the king their dishes. Many were lavish, exotic and delicious but the one that intrigued the king the most was Lang Lieu’s banh day and banh chung. The king asked him to explain these dishes and Lang Lieu said

Rice is the most precious food item in the land and yet also the most abundant. I have created dishes that symbolize the harmony between the earth and heaven so that all of our people can enjoy

The Hùng king found bánh chưng and bánh giầy not only delicious but also a fine representation of the respect for ancestors. Therefore, he decided to cede the throne to Lang Liêu and bánh chưng, bánh giầy became traditional foods during the tết. However these dishes are eaten year round.
Bánh giầy are usually served with a chả lụa while bánh chưng is often served with pickled onions or vegetables, chả lụa and nước mắm.
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