Banh cuon - a delight to one’s sense of smell and taste

Nga Do
With a history stretching back thousands of years, banh cuon (rolled cake) still proves to be a popular choice for diners in Viet Nam, and has even inspired some of the country’s renowned writers.

Among the well-known offerings of Ha Noi street food, banh cuon is consistently ranked a top choice. Vu Bang, a writer known for his beautiful prose on ancient Ha Noi, once wrote that “a visitor from Hai Phong, Nam Dinh or Thanh Nghe, for example, that comes to Ha Noi and has the chance to eat banh cuon served with hot fried tofu will never forget this special dish.”

Banh cuon was born in Thanh Tri, an ancient suburb of Ha Noi, and banh cuon of Thanh Trì is still said to be the best. Bang wrote that he had been to several rural markets, and tried all types of rolled cake, but often the thick rice paper or strong smell of rice flour he found fell short of the banh cuon of Thanh Tri, and enhanced his longing for Ha Noi. 

When thinking of rolled cake, the Vietnamese may conjure images of Thanh Tri rolled cake, which is thin like paper and looks almost transparent. Taking a piece of rolled cake – the thin Thanh Tri rice paper rolled with a few wood ear mushrooms and some spring onions fried in oil and dipped in fish sauce – is a delight for the senses. Banh cuon is often served with fried tofu or cha (Vietnamese sausage). When he was away from Ha Noi during wartime, the young Vu Bang missed his hometown and its food, especially the banh cuon.

He wrote “Once one has tasted the rolled cake, he would remember it for the rest of his life. He would miss everything about it – from the dipping sauce, and the texture to the graceful posture of the rolled cake vendor.” In times gone by, the rolled cakes would be seen piled high in vendors’ baskets. The rolled cake vendors, with their baskets full of delicacies were described as “having graceful and agile postures” by writer Thach Lam. The women travelled around the city selling the rolled cake.

Nowadays, diners in Ha Noi can find old eateries serving Thanh Tri rolled cake, like Thanh Van Rolled Cake or Mrs Hoanh Rolled Cake, just to name a few. Today’s rolled cake sellers are still ‘graceful’ and ‘agile’ in the way Thach Lam described – when customers order, they prepare rice flour, spread a spoonful of wet batter over the closely woven steaming basket and then take out the almost-transparent rice sheet with a bamboo stick. Minced pork and wood ear mushrooms are then rolled in the rice sheet, ready to be served with dipping sauce. The sauce served with the rolled cake is similar to that in bun cha (noodles served with grilled pork) – fish sauce with sugar, water (to lessen the saltiness), chili and vinegar.

Traditionally, ca cuong was added to the dipping sauce (ca cuong is a fragrant oil made from an insect). However, today it is hard to find such an addition. Other localities including Cao Bang and Lao Cai developed their own version of the rolled cake, with their own unique take on the dish. In the northern provinces of Cao Bang and Lang Son, rolled cake is eaten with pork bone broth, instead of fish sauce like in Ha Noi. While spreading wet batter over the steaming basket, cooks would add an egg, and then cover the cooked egg with a rice sheet. Diners could add some fermented bamboo shoots and chili to fortify their broth.

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