Found universally throughout Vietnam, despite its variations, banh duc remains the ‘dish of the poor person’. Words by Vi Pham. Photos by Siân Kavanagh
Street food has its own story, especially in Saigon which is always vibrant with sidewalk cuisine. But when it comes to the dish that has travelled all over Vietnam and is loved in different shapes and forms, banh duc surely carries the most stories. It used to be one of the most popular street foods before urbanisation took hold and moved away the people who had mastered the skill of making this square-cut rice cake served up in banana leaves.
Originating in northern Vietnam, banh duc comes in many forms. In the north, there is banh duc nong (hot banh duc with pork and vegetables). In central Vietnam, there is banh duc man (cool banh duc with shredded shrimp). In Saigon, there is banh duc ngot (cool banh duc with sweet coconut cream, pork and herbs). There is also a dessert version where it is topped with sesame seeds and caramel — this is widely consumed in the Mekong Delta. From the north to the south, there may be 20 types of banh duc.
The Dish of the Penniless
Despite the diversity and the popularity of this rice cake, people still refer to it as “the dish of the poor” because of its simple rustic recipe. With only rice flour and water as the basic ingredients, banh duc is cheap to make and cheap to buy. In the past, when vendors still carried banh duc around on their shoulder poles, they would sing out the dish’s name to let everyone know about their goods, and move slower after every word to see if anyone would order the fresh steamed banh duc cubes wrapped in banana leaves, topped with coconut sauce, nuoc mam ngot (sweetened nuoc mam) and homegrown herbs.
When asked about the dish, my father recalls him and his friends chasing a banh duc seller to buy lunch for their day in the fields looking after the family’s cows, shouting to attract the attention of “granny banh duc” who had moved quite a distance from the field.
“With just a few pennies, we could buy a full meal,” says my father. “Banh duc was one of the top choices for us poor kids, especially since you didn’t have to wash the container after eating, but fed it to the calves.”
Banh duc, as remembered by my grandma, was a typical street food. Saigon’s sidewalks during the 1970s and the 1980s were filled with banh duc vendors, either on shoulder poles or on an old bicycle with a big bamboo basket on the back. It was the comfort food for anyone from any class of Saigon, from workers to students. Customers could eat directly from the sellers’ small bowls or order a to-go version wrapped in leaves.
Hard Worked Recipe
As affordable as it is, banh duc leaves an impression from the first bite. The richness in every cube of this cake represents a homey Vietnamese flavour of well blended and filtered rice flour, leaving a memorable aftertaste, especially when served with sweet coconut cream. But to achieve such richness and the silky texture of the dish, the maker has to select and handle the ingredients with care. The complexity of making banh duc can make you wonder why it is so inexpensive.
The rice seeds must be harvested at least one year before making the dish. If the rice is too fresh and new, the dish will turn into a floppy mess after steaming. Rice flour that has been around for more than a year helps smoothen the texture and maintain the chewiness. Even the grinding process requires dedication.
In the old days, rice flour was all ground by hand. First, the seeds were soaked in fresh water for three days. Using a stone grinder, banh duc makers would carefully move the heavy handles in circles for quite a long time to ensure that every seed was well crushed.
Perhaps all this hard work has led to a decrease in the business of banh duc. These days there are electric grinders to help with the grinding process and as rice flour is available in most places, the makers skip all the traditional steps. Unfortunately, the taste has definitely not stayed the same.
If the sellers could once easily be found going from house to house in the city’s alleys, it is rare to find one these days. In Saigon, the best place now to find banh duc is around and inside the markets. You’ll recognise a vendor from their simple sales booth or shoulder poles with no stove, no fire or complicated equipment. It will just be the blocks of banh duc, cans of nuoc mam, coconut cream and some additional toppings such as pork, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs.
You can buy a plate of banh duc from VND10,000 to VND50,000 in and around Ben Thanh and Tan Dinh Markets (District 1), Binh Tay Market (District 5) and Ba Chieu Market (Binh Thanh)