For the record, I don’t mean for you to make a snap guess: “Vietnamese women are a piece of cake”. Because they are not, so bare that in mind. But rather, what I am going to dazzle you with is a cultural, traditional and loving interpretation of the relation between Vietnamese floating cake and Vietnamese women.
OK SO WHAT ABOUT THIS CAKE?
Imagine a tiny version of dumplings, but a million times more awesome. Floating rice cake (bánh trôi) is a combination of rice flour (because, duh!) with a nicely formed brown sugar cube at heart and being embellished on top with roasted sesame seeds and copra.
Floating rice cakes remind me of my childhood pulling my mother’s shirt to beg for them whenever they come across my sight. The cakes’ chewy texture goes along with the crunchiness of the sesame and dried coconut. When they all come to the end of the dance with that heavenly sweetness of the sugar cube melting in your mouth. That, my friends, is when you have reached food heaven.
WHEN IS IT USUALLY EATEN?
Floating rice cake is sold around the year and in almost any market. However, it is reserved to be a must-have traditional dish on the third day of the third lunar month’s festival (Tết Hàn thực). This tradition dates back to 770B.C – 221A.D in China. Lunar March 3rd is when Vietnamese pay their respect to the deceased ones in the memories of their merits, fostering and sacrifices.
WHAT IT TELLS YOU ABOUT VIETNAMESE WOMEN
Nobody has thought of the relation between this spectacular specialty and Vietnamese women’s moralities until Ho Xuan Huong articulated it so perfectly in one of her signature poems.
Widely known as the 18th century’s Queen of Chinese-transcribed Vietnamese poetry (Bà Chúa Thơ Nôm), she still amazes readers of generations with her literary legacy and a progressive thinking ahead of time. Despite living in a critically conservative era and under the influence of Confucian ideology, the poet was free-spoken by nature and expressively criticized the feudal oppression on women in a patriarchal society in her distinctive style poems. One of her most recognized masterpieces is “Floating Rice Cake” (Bánh Trôi Nước).
The original version goes:
“Thân em vừa trắng lại vừa tròn
Bảy nổi ba chìm với nước non
Rắn nát mặc dầu tay kẻ nặn
Mà em vẫn giữ tấm lòng son”
You probably want to know why it is called floating cake. If you don’t, I challenge you to do so. As you can see in the picture, it is not because it is floating in the air. To put it simply, being put inside a pot of boiling water, the cakes, after a while of sinking down, will float upon the water’s surface when they are done. Ho Xuan Huong perceived this like the struggles the women going through in life in order to be with the one they love. Back in her time, women were not given equal rights and their marriages were usually decided by their parents, hence being with the one they truly love was not at all easy. And at the end of the journey, in spite of all the ups and downs thriving through the boiling hardships, their love and morals stay the same, just like the sweet sugar cube in the middle.
Floating rice cakes have got our Queen of Poetry’s appreciation and I am sure they will get yours too.
By Nguyen Thanh Huong, ASEAN Correspondent from Vietnam