"Muốn ăn bánh ít lá gai lấy chồng Bình Định cho dài đường đi”.
As a popular Binh Dinh saying goes "If you wish to eat banh it la gai, marry a Binh Dinh man to increase your life expectancy".
Binh Dinh is the land of Banh It La Gai, which is made from the five main ingredients: glutinous rice flour, gai leaf, sugar, mung bean and banana leaf. Banh It La Gai has the sweet taste of sugar, the aroma of sweet rice, the spice of ginger, the starch of mung bean, bitter taste of gai leaf and the grassy perfume of banana leaf. All of these ingredients bring out a refreshing flavor and a distinctive glossy deep black color that gives the cake its unique color.
The name Banh It La Gai indicates the two common features of the cake: “ít” means “little” referring to the size of a serving for it only takes a couple bites to finish off a cake, and “lá gai” refers to the pointy serration of the leaf commonly found abundantly in the tropics of Vietnam, but can easily be grown in the warmth of the California sun as well.
I've always been fascinated by how banh it la gai gets its black color as I had never seen it my entire life untiil recently. Sometimes in March this year, I was lucky enough to receive some Gai plants from my mother-in-law's friends. I was determined to make my first batch, but it would have to wait for three months until the first gai plants are ready for harvesting. The Gai leaves are green but after you ground in a mortar or blend it, its green colour will turn dark green. Once you steam the cake, the colour will turn black just like the color of Banh It La Gai that is shown above from my first batch. The process of making Banh It La Gai may not look appetizing but the finished product is quite pleasing to the palate. Pleiku, where I grew up, is very close to the province of Binh Dinh. In the mornings, many people from Binh Dinh came to Pleiku to conduct their daily business. According to the people of Binh Dinh, the ingredients in Banh It La Gai not only taste good, but are also good for you; they can prevent abdominal pain, keep your stomach warm, and the ash from gai leaves can be used to cure gas pain.
Banh It La Gai also plays a large role in Vietnamese rituals. This cake is always offered to worship ancestors during the New Year festivals . In marriage rituals, a tray of Banh It La Gai is the gift of the bride’s family to that of the groom to show the skillfulness of the bride who has made it together with the help of other villagers. Any ladies ready to tie the knot soon?
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RECIPE:Banh It La Gai
1 cup of palm or brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 bag of glutinous rice flour (bột nếp)
about 1/2 pound of Gai leaves
1 tablespoon of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon of pomelo flavour or vanilla extract
1/2 bag of mung bean, soaked for a couple of hours or overnight
1 cup of sugar
1 bag or 1 cup of frozen or fresh shredded young coconut
1 teaspoons of pomelo flavour or vanilla extract Oil
1 bag of frozen banana leaf, trimmed of any brown edges, washed, and wiped. Cut into 40 pieces of about 5 x 10 Making Dough
Boil 2 and 1/4 cups of water with brown sugar and salt to make syrup. Remove it from heat and let it cool down.
Wash Gai leaves and removed the hard line in the middle of each leaf. Bring it to boil for about 15 minutes. Drain it and squeeze out the water. Put gai leaves and ginger in a blender and blend it with a little bit of disolved sugar until the texture is super smooth. Set it aside.
In a mixing bowl, mix well together flour, gai paste, syrup and vanilla extract. Kneed if for about 10 minutes until dough is soft and it doesn't stick to your hands or the mixing bowl. If during the kneeding process, dough is still dry, add a little bit more of water in the dough and kneed it again. Divide dough into 40 balls.
Soak mung beans overnight or a few hours, so it is quicker to cook them. Drain the beans. In a pot, add water about 1/2 inch above the beans and bring it to boil. Reduce the heat to low, stir it and cook with lid on for about 15 minutes or until soft. Mash it. Add sugar, shredded coconut and vanilla extract. Mix it up well. If it's too dry, add a little more of hot water. Cool off the mixture in room temperature. Divide beans paste into balls equally to the dough balls
Prepare Pastry Ball
Flatten a ball of dough
Take a bean paste ball, put in the middle of the round flat dough.
Close the dough and roll it with your palms to make a ball. Brush oil all over the ball before wrapping it up, so that the cake will not stick on the banana leave after steaming it.
Fold a piece of banana left into a cone shape. Drop the ball dough into it. Fold in four sides.
Steam banh gio over boiling water at medium-high heat for about 20 minutes.
* If your banh it la gai is not as black as it's supposed to be, you probably didn't use enough gai leaves.
* I was a little bit nervous when my dough turned out to be dark green instead of black. But after I steamed it, the color turned out black as I expected. * To keep the banh it la gai's wrapping banana leaves lush green, steam banh it la gai without wrapping it first. After it's cooked, then wrap it with banana leaves and steam it for about 5 or less. Remove it from thesteamer. I didn't do it this way, that's why my banana leaves turned yellow instead.