Among the well-known offerings of Hanoi street food, banh cuon is consistently ranked a top choice.
Vu Bang, a writer known for his beautiful prose on ancient Hanoi, once wrote that a visitor from Hai Phong, Nam Dinh or Thanh Nghe, for example, that comes to Hanoi 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 Hanoi, and the banh cuon from this area is still said to be the best.
Vu 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 Hanoi.
When thinking of rolled cake, the Vietnamese may conjure images of Thanh Tri rolled cake, which is paper-thin and almost transparent. Eating a piece of banh cuon – at its simplest, it is filled 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 orcha (Vietnamese sausage).
When he was away from Hanoi 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 baskets. Writer Thach Lam described the rolled cake vendors, who travelled around the city, as having graceful and agile postures.
Nowadays, diners in Hanoi can find old eateries serving Thanh Tri rolled cake, like Thanh Van Rolled Cake or Mrs Hoanh Rolled Cake, just to name two.
Today’s banh cuon sellers are still graceful and agile in the way Thach Lam described. The only prepare the rice flour wrapper when customers order, spreading a spoonful of wet batter over a closely woven steaming basket and removing the almost-transparent rice sheet with a bamboo stick.
Ingredients such as minced pork and wood ear mushrooms are then rolled in the rice sheet, ready to be served with dipping sauce. The sauce is similar to that served with inbun cha (noodles served with grilled pork): fish sauce with sugar, water (to lessen the saltiness), chilli and vinegar.
Traditionally, ca cuong (a fragrant oil made from an insect) was added to the dipping sauce. However, today it is hard to find sauces made with this added ingredient.
Other localities including Cao Bang and Lao Cai have developed their versions 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 as in Hanoi. While steaming the batter for the wrapper, cooks would add an egg and then cover the cooked egg with a rice sheet. Diners could add some fermented bamboo shoots and chilli to their broth to fortify it. – Asia News Network/Viet Nam News/Hong Van