Lunar New Year

Weekend Project: How to Make Xôi Gấc For Vietnamese New Year

The red hue of this sticky rice dish is said to bring good fortune.

Lauren Tran grew up in Seattle, where there was always an abundance of Vietnamese desserts to choose from: green honeycomb cake infused with the scent of pandan, sticky and steamed bánh da lợn made with rice flour, and spherical fried sesame balls. That wasn’t the case when she arrived in New York City three years ago. 

“I was shocked that there weren’t that many Vietnamese restaurants and on top of that, there are banh mi shops but they aren’t the banh mi shops that I’m used to on the West Coast,” Tran explains. “The banh mi shops [in Seattle] are like Vietnamese bakeries that have tables full of Vietnamese desserts readily available. I was like, ‘Where is any of that here?’” 

Tran, who is a pastry cook alumna of Gramercy Tavern, won the restaurant’s annual Thanksgiving pie competition with a coconut pandan pie layered with lemongrass whipped cream. After her recognition, she decided that she could be the person to fill the void of Vietnamese desserts in New York City. “When [my pie] won, and it got to go on the menu, that was when I was like, ‘There’s something here.’ That classically trained side of me and the Vietnamese side of me that knows how to use these flavors in a little bit more of a subtle way and I got so much confidence from what I was hearing.” 

Tran now runs Banh by Lauren, a microbakery where she sells a rotating selection of classically French desserts with Vietnamese twists through Instagram. “So many people are reaching out to me and telling me they can’t believe they get to eat these Vietnamese desserts that are right alongside really classic desserts,” she says. 

It wasn’t always this way. Tran originally had plans to pursue medicine, and had even already taken the MCATs before deciding that her heart was set in the food world—much to the dismay of her parents. “My parents did not want me to go into pastry; they said it wasn’t a career path,” she says. But Tran was set on food, and worked both front of house and in pastry programs to gain experience and perspective from all the working cogs that allow a restaurant to run. 

Now that she’s creating her own pastries, using her classically trained background with Vietnamese influences, her mom is enthusiastically sharing tips and her own recipes. “What’s really cool about Banh by Lauren is that it’s created this relationship with my mom. It wasn’t until I started this Banh by Lauren that my mom was like, ‘Oh, by the way, when you have a shop you should sell this,’” Tran says, beaming. “She had never entertained the future. Now she’s like, ‘Oh, I thought of something you can put in your next box.’ I think she’s really excited to be able to help me and show her knowledge and her expertise in that way. It’s been a blessing to be able to share this connection through Vietnamese food.” 

For Têt this year, or Vietnamese new year, Tran is usually at home with her family cleaning the house, prepping food, and praying at the family altar. But since she’s all the way in New York City, Tran is instead partnering with Madame Vo for a second time and releasing a dessert box containing bánh da lợn, French macarons, and a selection of xôi. “You’ll see xôi gấc at weddings for the tea ceremony and a bunch of family gatherings, including Têt,” Tran explains. “Red is a very lucky color. Gấc fruit is widely available in Vietnam and the seed itself imparts this red color and it doesn’t have that much of a flavor.” Since it’s difficult to find gấc fruit in the United States, Tran opts for the use of food color to get xôi gấcs signature warm coloring. 

Xôi gấc operates in a plane between mango sticky rice and plain sticky rice. It’s sweet—but not dessert-level sweet. To remediate this, Tran prefers to eat her xôi with a little bit of sugar or a topping of muối vừng, a combination of roasted peanuts, sugar, salt, and toasted sesame seeds. Shredded coconut can also be added on top. 

“As a superstitious Vietnamese family, what you do on Lunar New Year kind of follows you throughout the year,” Tran explains. “You kind of have to be on your best behavior, you clean the house. So, for me, it would be a good precursor if I was working and baking on Lunar New Year.”

Xôi Gấc

  • 2 cups (300 g) glutinous sweet rice, soaked overnight
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon neutral oil (canola or vegetable will work)
  • red food coloring, add to your desired color
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup (55 g) coconut milk

1. Rinse the soaked rice a couple of times until the water runs clear. Drain. Add salt, oil and food coloring. Mix thoroughly so everything is evenly distributed.

2. Place rice in the steamer. Cover and steam over medium heat for 40 minutes. Toss the rice twice gently (at the 15 and 30 minute mark).

3. Combine the sugar and coconut milk and mix well. Drizzle half over the rice. Toss gently, Drizzle the rest. Toss gently. Steam for an additional 20 minutes.

Muối Vừng

  • 1 cup roasted peanuts
  • 3 tablespoons roasted sesame
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt

1. Roast the peanuts in the oven at 350 degrees fahrenheit. Check on them every 3 minutes and toss them around so they don't burn. Once they start to color, take them out of the oven and let them cool down. 

2. Roast sesame on a nonstick skillet. These burn really fast so keep tossing them. Once they start to get a little color and are fragrant, pour them into a bowl to stop them from burning.

3. Pulse the peanuts in a food processor ~5-10 times. Add in the sesame and pulse 2 times. Pour into a bowl. 

4. Add the sugar and salt, and mix to combine thoroughly.

5. It's ready to use! Keep in an airtight container. Sprinkle over xôi generously for a salty and sweet topping.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn
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