There are many types of banh cuon or steamed rice paper rolls. The version from Phu Ly just south of Hanoi is one of the best. Words by Huyen Tran. Photos by Julie Vola
Although beef and chicken are the usual meats served up with pho, it doesn’t mean pho is not tasty when it is paired with alternatives, like pho with roasted duck or pho vit quay. It may sound strange but it tastes delicious.
Banh cuon or steamed rice roll is another example. Banh cuon, which is typically made from two main ingredients: steamed rice sheets and fillings served with hot dipping sauce, is Hanoi’s traditional way of enjoying this dish. In different countryside areas of Northern Vietnam, banh cuon is popularly served with cooled rice sheets.
Among these areas, Ha Nam is well known for its banh cuon Phu Ly — which is now available in some eateries in Hanoi.
Different from Hanoi’s banh cuon, banh cuon Phu Ly is served with cooled thin rice sheets and without fillings. And instead of Vietnamese pork sausage or cha lua, it is paired with grilled pork side (bacon) and meat balls, called cha — which is one of the two ingredients of bun cha. Besides a plate of rice sheets topped with cha and fried onions, diners also get a bowl of dipping sauce and a plate of fresh herbs.
Cha without the Bun
According to the owner of Banh Cuon Phu Ly Ngan Ha, the key elements of creating tasty banh cuon are the rice sheets and the dipping sauce. The sauce should be both light, delicate yet flavourful. Being a well-blended condiment, it enhances the flavour of the rice sheets.
“I always recommend our diners use plenty of sauce and dip transparent rice sheets down into the sauce — that’s the idea behind the sauce, together with the fried onions. They add flavour to the thin, silky rice sheets.”
Every day, packs of cool and fresh, silky rice sheets are transported from Ha Nam to serve up in Ngan Ha’s three different eateries in Hanoi. In additional to tasty dipping sauce and light rice sheets, they also offer appetizing and delicious cha — grilled pork belly and meat balls.
“The pork belly is carefully chosen and grilled fresh each morning before diners arrive,” said the owner. “We like to emphasize the raw taste of the meat itself, that’s why both fresh pork belly and meat balls are marinated with nuoc mam before being grilled, instead of using other condiments, such as onions or garlic.”
That may be the reason why the cha offered on the table is fresh, sweet and rich — a perfect add-on to the rice sheet and dipping sauce, making a harmonious and delightful version of cool banh cuon.
Eaten Like Bun?
In Phu Ly, Ha Nam, where this version of banh cuon originates, locals use a bowl of dipping sauce and put all the meat into the bowl — similar to the way Hanoians eat bun cha.
“I do not serve the meat that way and recommend diners in Hanoi dip the rice sheets and meat into the bowl each time they try,” said the owner. “If the meat is in the sauce for too long, it loses its consistency, texture and taste.”
When the heat becomes oppressive, there’s no better choice than light and delicate, yet flavourful rolls of banh cuon. That’s why people in Hanoi eat banh cuon for breakfast, lunch or even a nightime pick-me-up.
Some people may still prefer the traditional Hanoi version of banh cuon, yet this different version is worth a try. Especially if you like your bun cha.
You can find Banh Cuon Phu Ly Ngan Ha at 39 Dao Duy Tu, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi or 45 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi. Banh cuon is priced from VND 20,000 to VND30,000 per serving. They also offer mixed bun cha at VND30,000