As I walked into Francis International Market in Northside yesterday, I heard a flurry of Vietnamese being spoken as people were gathering stuff to make their Lunar New Year meals. An older couple in front of me had five slabs of pork belly and a huge array of other things I couldn’t distinguish. I was way out of my league. Francis Market is a hidden gem in an old Italianate row house on the hill ascending Colerain Avenue. If you’re looking for produce or foodstuffs from China, Vietnam, the Phillipines, or Africa, you’re in heaven. I asked a lady at the counter if they had mung cakes for New Year and she pointed me to a stack, that she said she had just made. They were square, wrapped in a banana leaf and had a red Chinese New Year greeting card in the center. A man said to me in English – “not moon cake, Mung cake,” which sounded almost the same to me. I told him thanks for distinguishing for me. Moon cake was for another celebration later in the year. This would be the first time I would taste one of these sticky rice cakes made across Asia in various ways, with various meanings, to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
February is one of those months that has ample food celebrations. It’s also sort of the dead of winter, and unless you’re into sking, skating, sledding, or snow-man-making, there’s not a whole let else to do. There’s Groundhog Day at the very beginning, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, Bockfest, President’s Day, and finally Lunar New Year. Score – what a lineup of holidays to eat over! There are all sorts of cakes associated to celebrate. There are groundhog cookies, like the super-sweet ones made by Bonbonnerie; paczkis, berliners, and Fastnacht donuts to celebrate Mardi Gras. There are cherry thing-a-lings from Batesville’s Schmidt’s bakery to celebrate President’s Day. There are Bavarian and Swabian pretzels to go with a bock beer for Bockfest. And, finally there are all sorts of sweet rice treats – maybe not cakes in our Western frame of mind – that are symbolically eaten for Lunar New Year across Asia. This new year is the Year of the Ox, by the Chinese lunar Zodiac, which thankfully means there will be no major disasters and that hard work will pay off.
This year, I decided to explore one class of these cakes, bean filled sticky rice cakes. In China they’re called Nian Gao – meaning tall, or expensive new year. They’re meant to symbolize progress, advancement, and growth – all things I want to happen this year. In ancient legend, the Nian was a dragon-like beast who would either come out of the sea or from the mountains to terrorize and eat people and livestock around the Lunar New Year. This is a very similar story of the Germanic Krampus and Perchten – evil spirits who come to terrorize the Alpen people around the Solar New Year. People would pack up and hide in the caves and mountains when Nian came to their villages. But one year an old man stayed, put up red shades, wore a red robe, and lit bamboo, which sparked and crackled and made loud noises, which scared off the evil beast. These became the traditions of wearing and decorating houses in red during the New Year. A tradition of putting these sweet rice cakes out and giving them to family and friends also caught on in China.
In Vietnam, their version of this sweet rice cake is called Bahn Chung. They are made of a square of sweet sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf filled with mung bean paste and pork. It is super sticky, mildly earthy flavored and a huge carb load – great if you’re a sumo wrestler wanting to bulk up for the Spring championships, or about to run a marathon. The story behind this Vietnamese cake is less violent than the Chinese one. According to Vietnamese legend, Emperor Hung Vuong VI, had many sons. One year he decided to abdicate his throne to the son who brought him the most unusual food. All his sons went back to their houses and prepared elegant dishes. But his youngest son, Tiet-Lieu, who was a simple farmer went home and saw that his rice was ready for harvest, made a simple sticky rice cake filled with bean paste and pork. The Emperor said Tiet-Lieu’s cake was the purest and most meaningful food because it was the basic food stuff of the people and he gave him the throne. Today, these Bahn Chung cakes are placed at each home’s altar of ancestors during the Lunar New Year, which I love. So, if you want to be king (or queen) for the year, you might wanna eat a piece of this sticky cake, and then walk 10,000 steps or run a marathon.