Two Cakes for Prine Lieu

June 8, 2012
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Once upon a time, in a land of noodle soup and terraced green rice paddies, there lived an emperor named Hung. Now Hung was no ordinary emperor. He had founded Vietnam, but now he was getting old, and he was ready to move on to his next life.
“Father knows he is getting nearer the dirt and farther from the sky,” he told his twenty-two sons. “It is time for one of you to be crowned king.”
The twenty-two royal princes tried not to show their excitement.
“How will you choose, father?” prince number 14 asked.
“I will hold a cooking contest,” the king replied. “Each of you has to create a unique dish that means something to honor our ancestors. Whoever best fulfills this wins.”
Each prince sent his servants to scour the land for meaningful delicacies, from the depths of the South China Sea to the peaks of the Marble Mountains. However, there was one prince named Lieu who sent no one. His mother had died when he was a boy, so he spent a lot of time in contemplation. He didn’t have anyone to help him, so he thought of how he could help himself.
Finally, only three days remained and Lieu, prince number 18, still hasn’t thought of anything. He lay on his silk couch in the small pagoda his father had built him around the royal pond. Each prince lived in his own little red house around the lake.
With his hand over his eyes, Prince Lieu tried to think of every meal he had ever eaten. Of course, this was so boring he soon fell asleep. In his dream, Lieu imagined his brothers each baking wonderful cakes in their pagodas by the lake while he had nothing. While Prince Lieu lay there, the water began to whirl as Quan Am, Goddess of Mercy, rose from the pond on a giant pink lotus blossom. She was garbed in white, and her hand was raised in a symbol of peace.
“Nothing on Earth approaches the beauty of heaven; and nothing approaches the beauty of a stomach well-fed. Therefore, not even the loveliest jewel holds the value of a grain of rice. Go bake two simple rice cakes and find me some beans.”
Quan Am pulled out some banana leaves and guided Lieu’s hands.
“The perfect square cake is from the earth and shaped like it, for the Earth is where all bounty comes. The rich green color of the leaves symbolizes the farm and the forest—the aliveness of growing things. Within the cake, there should be meat and beans to symbolize the Earth and its creatures. We will call this Banh Chung or ‘feet cake.’”
A flower of hope blossomed in him as he listened to the goddess speak.
“For your second cake, roll the rice into a flat white circle that represents the heavens. Call this cake Banh Day.”
When Prince Lieu awoke on his scarlet silk couch, he rushed to the kitchen to bake his dream. He was just in time, for song of the moon lute, the banging of the coin clapper, and the quivering voice of the singing bowl was announcing the princes’ return.
“Welcome home, my sons!” Emperor Hung’s ancient eyes sparkled with excitement. The sun was just beginning to glow gold in the sky. It would be a new day for one lucky prince, for he would be crowned king.
His seventeen sons’ expressions were smug as they stood before their father and the people, their dishes steaming in their hands on lovely wood planks. Only Prince Lieu looked worried. People were staring at his two rice cakes with disgust.
“We have brought exotic dishes from the far corners of the Earth and hope Your Augustness will be pleased.”
The banging of bronze drums signaled the start of the contest. Prince Danh staggered forward with his dish. You could barely see him from behind the iridescent blue spray of peacock feathers. An entire proud peacock sat on a golden platter, stuffed with raisins and spices and ready to eat.
The crowd gasped. Never had they seen such a beautiful dish.
“Nem cong, peafowl meat, Your Majesty.” Prince Danh could not hide his smug smile.
Emperor Hung plunged his silver chopsticks into the bird and hit bone. There did not seem to be much meat on the bird.
“Beautiful but bony.” The emperor sighed. “Next.”
Prince Quang stepped forward with his cha phuong, pork paste molded in the shape of a phoenix.
“A phoenix represents rebirth, for in old age it bursts into flame and returns as an egg. So shall the nation be reborn when you select me as king.”
Prince Quang hefted a giant vial of snake wine into the air so everyone could see the cobra paralyzed in the liquid. He poured the wine over the pork paste phoenix, then lit a match so the bird burst into flames.
The crowd reared back in amazement and fear, then started to laugh as the prince hopped around, trying to extinguish the little sparks in his hair. Prince Lieu rushed forward and clapped the dancing flames out of his brother’s hair.
Emperor Hung cleared his throat, his silver chopsticks snapping over the charred phoenix. He tasted the burnt pork, then spit it out.
“Wonderful show, but a bit too well done for my taste.”
Nineteen more sons presented their delicacies, which ranged from barbequed bear claws to smoked chicken liver pate. They were all very interesting, but somehow, there was something missing.
Finally, Prince Lieu presented his two simple rice cakes and explained their significance. At first, the people scoffed at the simple cakes, but as they listened to their meaning, their minds changed.
“This delicacy represents all that is important to us, and contains the everyday ingredients that sustain us.”
The emperor tasted the cakes. They were delicious.
“How did you come up with these wondrous cakes, my son?”
Prince Lieu explained his dream—of how the Goddess Quan Am had come to him in his need.
Emperor Hung smiled. “Rice is our most precious jewel. In China, ‘How are you?’ translates to ‘Have you eaten rice today?’, for if you have not, it means you are starving. My son, because you are the only person who thought of what is truly important, I name you king.”
The crowd exploded into cheers and waved their flags while the other princes looked glum, and from then on, on every New Years, the people made Prince Lieu’s rice cakes to celebrate their good fortune.

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