Vietnamese Rice Cake in Banana Leaf

Vietnamese Rice Cake in Banana Leaf (Banh Chung)

2 cups sticky (glutinous) rice, preferably long-grain
1 drop green food coloring (optional)
1/4 cup dried split mung beans
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 ounces pork shoulder or butt or chicken thighs,
    cut into 1/4-inch thick chunks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 (15 x 17-inch) sheets plastic wrap plus extra
1 (15 x 17-inch sheet aluminum foil
2 (15-inch square) pieces banana leaf
Kitchen string

Place the sticky rice in a large bowl and cover with 3 inches of water. Stir in the food coloring, if using, and let the rice soak overnight. You should have about 4 cups of rice after soaking.

In a separate bowl, soak the mung beans for at least 4 hours.

Combine the shallots, fish sauce, black pepper and pork pieces and let marinate for 30 minutes.

Just before cooking, drain the rice and the beans and leave them in separate bowls. Add the salt to the rice and stir to blend.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over moderate heat. Add the pork pieces and all the marinade and stir just until the meat is brown around the edges, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

Using a steamer basket, steam the mung beans over simmering water until they’re soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

To make the packet, neatly lay down the wrappers in this order: one sheet of plastic wrap, the aluminum foil and two sheets of banana leaves (one perpendicular to the other). Place 1 cup of rice in the center of the banana leaf, spreading it over a 5-inch-square area. Place half of the mung beans on top then add the pork pieces. Cover again with the remaining mung beans and place 1 cup of rice on top.

Bring the narrow sides of the wrappers together. Fold the gathered edges over twice, then flatten against the packet. (You now have two open ends.) Fold one end over and hold the packet upright. Add half of the remaining rice, tapping it and pushing it down so the packet will be an even square. Fold the ends (like wrapping a gift box) and repeat on the other side.

Place the packet with the folded sides down in the center of the remaining plastic sheet. Wrap tightly so water will not seep into the packet during cooking. Tightly tie the packet with two parallel strings in both directions (as in a tic-tac-toe pattern).

Fill a large stockpot with water. Add the packet and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer. Place a colander or something heavy to keep the packet submerged in the water. Cook, uncovered, for 4 hours, adding more water as necessary. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for 1 hour.

To serve, cut the packet (without unwrapping) into 1/2-inch slices. Remove the wrapping and arrange the slices on a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature. If wrapped in plastic and refrigerated, the cake will keep for 1 week.

Makes 1 large packet, or 4 servings.

PER SERVING: 450 calories, 18 g protein, 77 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat (3 g saturated), 34 mg cholesterol, 698 mg sodium, 6 g fiber