Aunt S made the best Khmer dessert rolls. There is nothing particularly unusual about the combination of fruit, glutinous rice, coconut milk, or mungbean that she used. As far as I know, she had no secret ingredients. All I know is that whenever those small bundles wrapped in banana leaves came around, I hoped that she was the one who made them; hers were always the best.
As is typical in much Southeast Asian cooking, these desserts require an array of ingredients, a knowledge of technique, and a certain amount of patience.
Banana leaves were harvested from trees in the backyard, washed, carefully softened over a gas flame, and wiped down. Coconuts would be drained and split, their flesh scraped out using a small wooden bench with a serrated, steel blade attached to it. The shredded coconut would then be squeezed by hand to obtain the milk. I remember watching both Aunt S and Grandmother B do this, the thin, watery liquid flowing from between their brown fingers into slightly dented metal bowls. Short, plump bananas, usually harvested from the same tree from which the leaves were acquired, had to be peeled. Pots of glutinous rice were steamed and mixed with a little of the coconut milk. Sometimes canned jackfruit would be thinly sliced and mixed into the rice (I particularly loved it when they did this).
Making these Khmer glutinous rice dessert burritos was no small affair; once all of the ingredients were prepared, they had to be assembled, and for these desserts to be made at all, there had to be some special occasion, which meant that more than a dozen or two would be made. A group of older, grandmotherly relatives would sit on woven mats among pyramids of bananas, thick stacks of banana leaves, giant pots of sticky rice, rolling these dessert burritos and arranging them to be steamed much like tamales would be. They were delicious fresh– the banana inside softened and slightly tart, the rice faintly scented by the banana leaves and enriched by the coconut.
Like I said, Aunt S made the best ones. Years ago, I watched her make a small batch by herself. It was an even slower process with her; she seemed to put extra care into every part of the process. She did everything with an air of mindfulness. Her bundles were smaller, symmetrical, extremely neat. She admitted that it was a bit of a pain to make them, but she had a smile on her face when she said it. I could see that she was pleased that her efforts were appreciated, she was pleased to make the effort in the first place.
That is the secret of most good things: there is love in them, before, during, after the act of making them. My aunt’s modest yet vibrant grin over her perfect little sticky rice banana bundles taught me that.