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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bánh Ít Lá Gai (Gai Leaf Little Cake)

"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?

* * *

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

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.

Making Filling
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 the steamer.  I didn't do it this way, that's why my banana leaves turned yellow instead. 


  1. Once again a great post from you. One question though - do you know what's la gai name in english. I'm planning to buy some seed to plant but couldn't find it in google

  2. I have no idea what's la gia name in English. But let me check to see if I can collect seeds from our la gai plants. I can always send you some if there is any. Please send me your email address and I will get back to you soon.

  3. Hello,

    Is anyone know where i can get the seed for la gia.

    I love the pastry..
    my email address is

  4. Botanical name is Boehmeria nivea var. tenacissima

  5. Hello I love your blogger. I love Banh gai. I I could get some of the seed or plant from you would be devine. My email is Thxx

  6. I dont have seeds but I can give you plant. I also sent an email to:

  7. hi there
    I love love love banh gai. I buy them at the sandwich store nearby but they are not nearly as good as the ones I eat back in the country when I was a litte girl. I found your blog, especially your banh gai's recipe and planning to make them. But I dont have la gai so I am thinking....I might use food color then. :-(

  8. I forgot to mention...thanks for the recipe!

  9. Hi I love Banh Gai, but I don't have the plant to make it. Can I get a plant from you? It would greatly appreciated. My email is

  10. Hmm...I don't know what Banh It La Gai tastes like when using food color but you can try it out and let me know how it turns out.

    If any of you live near by Sacrmento, you can get lá gai plant from me but you need to wait until next Spring since Lá gai plant dies in the Winter.

    Toward the beginning of this past Fall season, we harvested all the leaves. We boiled and blended it then we stored them in the fridge so that we can use it when ever we need. We have enough to make just 2 batches since we just started to plant lá gai in March.

  11. Any one knows where to buy that kind of leaf?

  12. There is no lá gai leaves available in the witner as lá gai plant dies in the winter. I know a few people grown lá gai. I can check to see if they have dried leaves that want to sell. If not, you can wait until late spring and I will ask them again. They can always ship it to you via usps.

  13. Thank you for looking into it.. :)

  14. Hello Loan,

    Thank you so much for your tips in making bánh cam and especially how to keep it crunchy for a day or so. Can I copy down your recipe and I will try Bánh Cam tomorrow, hopefully it will turn out as great as yours.

    Re: Bánh ít lá gai, I've been searching for it but was not able to find anywhere that sells the "real bánh gai" with lá gai flavor :(. I really like it and wonder if you can spare me some seeds when spring comes (as you mentioned, lá gai won't grow till spring). I live in Virginia, USA and I'm willing to payg for the shipping or whatever cost related.

  15. I will do my best to get lá gai plant or seeds for you :->

  16. Thank you so much Loan. I'm so touched with your kindness and really appreciated your extra effort in helping me with this "lá gai" collection. Here is my email address in case you have to contact me:

    Re: bánh cam. I did try out your recipe the next day as I've mentioned earlier. Here is the outcome:

    Based on your measurements for the ingredients, I've made 45 bánh cam

    1. The flour was so sticky so I added a little bit of rice flour and little bit of glutenous flour.

    2. I didn't have the single acting baking powder, ended up using double acting with the same amount

    3. When I fried: bánh cam nở phình ra và almost cái nào cũng bị lủng hết :(. What do you think ? Was it because I've used double acting baking powder? And I had to fry approx. 30 minutes in order to get it brown and crunchy. Or was it cuz I've made BIG bánh cam comparing to yours (90 bánh cam based on your provided measurements)?

    If you have time, I really appreciate your guide in this Bánh Cam.

    Many thanks

  17. I think it has to do with the double acting baking powder. Wow, chị fry sao mà cả half an hour luôn? It shouldn't take that long. Hôm nào chị try it again but make just half of the recipe. Em làm banh cam twice, the first time, the result was great. The second time, I did it in a hurry and didn't really measure the ingredients. The mung bean paste was soggy. Banh cam didn't float as I was frying it. So I ended up throwing everything in the trash.

  18. Hello Loan,

    It's Anita again. Can I ask you a question please? I was told that the Spanish/Mexican people also use "lá gai" for their cooking. Do you know the English/Spanish name for Lá gai by any chances? And/or do you know if lá gai would be sold in can like pandan juice? Thank you so much and enjoy your cooking as usual. Take care Loan

  19. Hi Anita. I searched for the English/Spanish name for La gai but I can't find any info. I don't know if there's la gai juice available in stores. Spring is almost here, my la gai plants are growing back. Once they have lots of leaves, I will harvest them for all of "banh it la gai" fans. I don't know how much I will get this year but let's see.
    In the meantime, let me check with the lady who gave us the la gai plant to see if she has la gai in stock and if she wants to sell them.

  20. Thank you so much Loan. I was hoping to find the alternatives so that I don't have to bother you knowing so many people have asked you for this special La Gai.


  21. hi loan i read you post and response with anita i'm also looking for la gai leaf as well can you let us know if the lady willing to sell it. i really enjoy your post.

    thank you,


  22. Hi Anitta ,
    Em lam Banh Gai ,nhung Em lam bang bot Me Den (black sesame seed Flour)nhu tat ca cac tiem ban Banh Gai o tren dat My nay da so ho deu lam nhu vay ,banh rat la thom ngon va ngon ,vi ba con em da co tiem va co ba Banh Gai.vai hang gop y cam on Chi.

  23. Banh lam bot me den rat co ly. Cam on nhieu nhen. Loan khoai me lam nen nghe lam banh la gai dung me den thay la gai la thich lien :->

  24. Hi, Can you please give me the weight of the bag of glutinous flour and mung bean used? I live in Australia and not sure whether the bags are the same size. Thankyou very much. Thuy

  25. Hi Thuy,

    A bag of bot nep (glutinous flour)is about 4 1/2 cups or 16oz.

    1 bag of Peeled and Split Mung Beans is about 1 1/2 cups.

  26. hi chi,
    i like banh it la gai a lot but i couldnt find where to sell la gai. did you buy the dry leaves from vn?

  27. Hi Tu Anh,
    I grow la gai plants. The la gai plants I posted in this entry was taken in my backyard.

  28. wow, thats amazing. chi o state nao ma plant dc vay chi

  29. Chi o gan Sacramento, Ca. Mua ddong la rung het nhung dden mua xuan la gai moi bat dau moc lai.

  30. em cung o gan chi ne...chi plant bang seed ha chi

  31. chi co the cho em mot nhanh de trong duoc khong? em tra tien shipping lai cho chi. tai o ben em ko co ai co trong cay la gai tinh co hom bua em search banh it la gai em moi dc nha chi

  32. Hom nao cay la gai moc len lai roi chi se gui cho. Make sure to remind me of this when spring comes around.

  33. Hi Annette,
    I've come across your blog while searching for vietnamese desserts. I love your blog.
    I've tried some of your recipe and turn out great. Thanks for sharing.


    I think this site sell the plant Gai. The scientific name for it (I looked it up on Wikipedia) is Boehmeria Nivea. Can you confirm the texture of the leaves are rough like sandpaper?


  35. Hi Chi Loan,
    I have been looking for cay la gai awhile now and so glad to find your website.
    One of your readers mentioned using "me den" in place of "la gai", I think of using that for now, until hopefully with your kindness to add me to your list of receiver for the plant. My email is

    Thank you,

  36. how do i remove the middle line in the gai leaf?

  37. I just used a scissor to cut it off.

  38. Hi Annette,

    I'm so glad to have found your blog through my sister.

    Like yourself, I also grew up in Pleiku. I still remember the taste of Banh It La Gai when mum bought them for breakfast from a street vending lady.
    They were so delicious that I can still have clear memory of their taste after so many years.

    For 34 years I've never seen anything like it sold in Australia. I guess it's more accessible in the US.

    I really love to try to make them following your recipe.

    But the question is where to find La Gai in Australia.

    My sister has found that there are these plants in the local botanical garden but they're not available commercially.

    Thanks for sharing your recipe and am so nicely surprised to find someone from Pleiku. There aren't many of us overseas!


  39. Hi chi Loan,
    em da mua duoc bot la gai o vietnam roi, chi nghi ben oregon weather co the plan duoc ko? neu duoc chi send cho em mot nhanh de plant in pot duoc chu? em se tra tien shipping lai cho chi. email cua em la
    Tu Anh

  40. Hi chi Loan,
    em da mua duoc bot la gai o vietnam roi, chi nghi ben oregon weather co the plan duoc ko? neu duoc chi send cho em mot nhanh de plant in pot duoc chu? em se tra tien shipping lai cho chi. email cua em la
    Tu Anh

  41. Hi,
    I love banh it la gai. I want to try making it for my friends, family, and myself. I would like to know if I can get some 'gai' seeds from you or where can I get the plant. Please email me at

    PS thank you for the recipe (^_^)

  42. Hi,
    I love banh gain and would love to try it for myself. Can you please email me if you have any seeds I can plant or where I can get the plant to make it?

    PS thank you for the recipe (^_^)


  43. Hi chi Loan!

    I've been dying to make this awesome dessert as its one of my favorite dishes. However, I always end up buying them as I don't know where to buy the gai leaves. Would you kindly send some seeds or even the plant so that I can grow them. Would you kindly email me at

    Thank you in advance and hope to hear from you soon!

  44. I live in Texas where lá gai plants grow fast. I cannot consume them all, so I trim,pull,and add them to my mulch pile. Let me know if you want some.