“Husband and wife cake” or “Banh phu the” is a traditional Vietnamese sweet cake, it basically means “Husband and wife cake. (“Phu” and “the” are Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary, they mean “husband” and “wife” respectively).
Back when I was little, whenever I go to a wedding with my parents they’d give this “husband and wife cake” to the guests. The cake is usually squared shaped, fit in the palm of my hands, wrapped in transparent cellophane sheets (or sometimes in boxes made out of coconut/banana leaves), bright green coloured, some sesame seeds sprinkled on top, with yellow mung beans and coconut filling. Take a bite, and it’s the perfect combination of the chewiness of the skin, the crunchiness of the coconut or papaya flakes, the richness of the mung bean filling, simple yet magically delicious. For some reasons though, this cake started disappearing as I grow up, and it has been a long time since I’ve last tasted one.
I would have never thought that I would be able to taste this cake again in France. My brother’s family was moving at the end of last month, and when I came to help my mom told me that there were a bit mung bean and tapioca flour left, and she wanted to make this cake with me. We spent a few hours in the afternoon making a dozen cakes. When the cakes finally cooled down, I unwrapped one and took a bite, and was immediately taken back to my childhood, as the cake is 90% the same as the store-bought ones (the other 10% is really, in my opinion, just because dried tapioca flour can’t really be compared to the fresh one).
The story of the origin of the “husband and wife” name for this cake has some variations, I will ửite dơn my favourite version at the end of this post so you can read if you’re interested.
Công thức tiếng Việt: Bánh phu thê (xu xê)
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 20 – 25 minutes
Yields: 12 cakes (using silicone cupcake moulds)
A. Cake filling
- 60g yellow mung bean
- 15g sugar (or to taste)
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- 2 tablespoon coconut flakes (it’s best if you can find fresh coconut flakes)
B. Cake skin
- 180g tapioca flour
- 350ml water (room temperature)
- 50g sugar (or to taste)
- 5 tablespoon coconut flakes (it’s best if you can find fresh coconut flakes)
- A few drops of pandan extracts (or red or yellow food colouring to your liking)
- Toasted sesame seeds
A. Cake filling
1. Rinse the mung bean well, soak in water for 6-8 hours till they double in size. If you’re in a hurry you can use boiling water to reduce soaking time. Drain well and steam, you can use a steamer, a rice cooker or steam on the stovetop.
I used the stovetop method: add the beans to a saucepan and pour water in till it barely cover the beans, bring to a boil on medium-high heat, then drain the water out, return the pan to the stove, reduce to low heat and steam till the bean is soft and tender. Turn the beans once in a while to prevent burning at the bottom.
2. When the beans are done, mash and mix in sugar, coconut flakes and cooking oil, return to the stove and stir on medium heat for 2-3 minutes then let cook, divide into 12 equal parts. If you feel like the beans are a bit too dry you can add a splash of water or oil. With this cake you want the filling to be a bit soft, that’ll give a better texture.
B. Cake skin
Mix tapioca flour, water and sugar. Add the pandan extract till you’re happy with the colour. Add the mixture to a saucepan, heat on medium-high heat, use a wooden spoon or a pair of chopsticks to continuously stir until the mixture thickens like in photo (3).
Add the coconut flakes and mix well. I used dried shredded coconut from the supermarket, but big coconut flakes would be best.
C. Shape, wrap and steam the cakes
1. To steam the cake you can use small heat-proof porcelain bowls as moulds, or use silicone cupcake moulds as I did. The dough is really sticky so it’s best that you use plastic utensils to handle it.
Grease the moulds with oil, add a tablespoonful of dough to the bottom and spread it out, add one part of the filling and top with another tablespoonful of dough to cover.
2. Put the cakes in the steamer for 20-25 minutes, or until the dough becomes translucent and you can se the filling.
3. Take them out and let cool, quickly dip your clean finger in some water, then in the sesame seeds and then stick them on top of the cakes. The cakes are usually wrapped in cellophane sheets, I don’t have those so I used cling film instead. Take the cake out of the mould, put the cake in the cling film (sesame side down), wrap tightly so the cake is plump and square shaped.
Chewy skin, crunchy coconut flakes, and rich filling, makes you just want to keep taking one bite after another, eating one cake after another. The caké can be stored at room temperature for up to 3 days, or up to 1 week in the fridge (if you store them in the fridge be sure to nuke them in the microwave 5-10 seconds before serving so the skin can become chewy again).
Like mentioned above, I will write down my favourite version of the origin of this cake here. There are 3 most popular tales, but my favourite is the one with the merchant couple.
It’s been said that the name “Husband and wife” cake came from the story of a married merchant couple. Whenever the husband had to go on a long trip to sell his merchandises in a different city, the wife would make this cake for him and promise that even though they have to be apart, she’d always remain sweet like this cake. The husband was very touched and he decided to name this cake “Husband and wife cake”. However on one of the trips, he was distracted by all the beautiful girls there, and he didn’t want to go back anymore. When the wife got the news, she decided to make this cake and send to the husband, with a poem:
“Từ ngày chàng bước xuống ghe
Sóng bao nhiêu đợt bánh rầu bấy nhiêu”.
(Since it’s a poem it’s kinda hard to translate. The word-by-word translation would be “Ever since you got on the ship. The cakes got more and more upset as more and more waves hit”. Basically she is using the ship as a metaphor for his trips, the cakes for her loyalty and the waves for all the beautiful girls that he got distracted by.)
When the husband received the cakes and the poem, he regretted his foolishness and immediately went back to his wife, never again think of adultery.
For this very reason, this cake is used to represent the love of husband and wife, and is gifted in weddings as a way to give the best wishes to the newlyweds, hoping that they would always love each other and stay loyal like these sweet cakes.