The floating rice dumplings of Cold Food Day

Nga Do
Every Vietnamese knows the poem ‘Banh troi nuoc’ (the dumpling that drifts in water), written by poetess Ho Xuan Huong in the 18th or 19th century. The words, which many a Vietnamese knows by heart, go like this:

Than em vua trang lai vua tron/ Bay noi ba chim voi nuoc non/ Ran nat mac dau tay ke nan/ Ma em van giu tam long son.

"My body is both white and round
In water I now swim, now sink
The hand that kneads me maybe rough
I still shall keep my true-red heart"

Ho Xuan Huong, dubbed "Queen of Nom poetry" (the name of the ancient Vietnamese ideographic script), used the floating dumpling as a metaphor for Vietnamese women in the old time – beautiful outside and inside though their life is full of ups and downs and they cannot control their fate.

Banh troi is in the size of a grape and made of rice, with a palm sugar cube inside; banh chay is the size of an egg, with mung beans inside, and is served with thick sweet sauce. While banh chung (square sticky rice cake) is a must for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year,  troi and chay dumplings are eaten in almost every Vietnamese family on Cold Food Day, which falls on the third day of the third lunar month (March 30th this year). The custom has its root in China, where it is celebrated from the third to fifth day of the fourth lunar month and is an occasion for the locals to honour a scholar named Zitui, who died of fire burns. Traditionally, fire is a taboo on this day and locals eat cold food only.

The Vietnamese, however, celebrate only one day, on which troi and chay dumplings are offered to ancestors as a sign of gratitude. Fire is not banned on this day, and in addition to floating rice dumplings, people still have normal meals. Making troi dumplings is pretty easy – preparing dough with a brown palm sugar cube inside and rolling it into small balls, which are then dropped into boiling water. The dumplings are ready when they float to the surface, and must then be placed in a bowl of cold water right away, otherwise they will stick to each other. Roasted sesame is sprinkled on top. Chay dumpling is boiled in the same way and served with thick and sweet sauce, to which grated ginger and coconut fibre are added. Though troi and chay dumplings versions may vary from region to region, they all share ingredients in common – grean beans, sugar cubes and sticky rice.

In Cao Bang and Lang Son provinces, local Tay ethnic people make Coong phu dumpling, which resembles floating rice dumplings yet tastes like lean cake. They serve this cake with hot sugarcane sauce flavored with ginger. In the south of Viet Nam, to celebrate Cold Food Day, people cook che troi nuoc, which is served with sugar sauce, ginger and coconut extract. Besides Cold Food Day, residents of the former province of Ha Tay (now part of Ha Noi City) celebrate the floating rice dumplings offering ritual on the 6th day of the third lunar month.

Legend had it that on the 6th day of the third lunar month, in 42AD, the Trung sisters were about to set out to fight the enemy, when a poor lady asked to meet them and offered them two plates of floating rice dumplings to pay her respects. The sisters happily ate the floating rice dumplings before going to do battle. Since then, for nearly 2,000 years, locals in Hat Mon Commune of Ha Tay Province offer floating rice dumplings to the Trung sisters. According to custom, they do not eat floating rice dumplings from the lunar new year festival till noon of the 3rd day of the third lunar month. They only eat the dumplings after offering them in temple and to ancestors at home. 

For Hanoians, these rice dumplings conjur up the small eatery of the late comedian Pham Bang, which offered sweet soups, floating dumplings and mung-bean dumplings. The small eatery in the Old Quarter’s Hang Giay Street was owned and managed by Bang and his wife for more than three decades. Many came there for the opportunity to see their favourite comedian and taste the juicy floating rice dumplings. For many this is a sweet childhood memory. A serving would normally consist of two balls in the size of an egg each, one with mung bean filling and the other with black sesame, both covered in thick sugar sauce characterised by the unique aroma of ginger.

Bang’s wife learned the recipe from the Chinese merchants who worked and lived on Hang Giay Street. She opened the eatery to earn extra money to supplement her husband’s earnings. Some said her dumplings were even better than those made by the Chinese in the area. Nowadays, Hanoians eat floating rice dumplings not only on special occasions like Cold Food Day, but also as a daily snack. The eatery drew native Hanoians to the Old quarter until the comedian died last year. All that remains are nostalgic memories and pity for those who did not get to know the place. These days, many families do not have time to prepare the traditional dumplings on Cold Food Day, and they buy it from local eateries, including those on 4 Hang Can Street or 52 Hang Dieu Street. Queues of people waiting in front of such eateries from the early morning are a familiar site.

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