Banh Da Tron
When I first came to Vietnam I tried any new street dish I could get my chopsticks into. But as time has worn on, I’ve become a food eater of habit. I rarely try anything new.
Recently I felt it was time for a change. When I’m in Hanoi, on the street I only ever seem to eat a few dishes, usually with the word pho or bun in their name. But even that’s no longer a given. I’ve overdosed so much on bun cha — one of northern Vietnam’s best-known dishes — that the rice noodle and barbecued pork staple has slipped off my ever-decreasing list of favourites.
The dish I decided to use to break my chains was banh da tron. With the broth served on the side together with green kumquat (tac xanh) and bun cha-style fresh herbs, the flat brown-coloured noodles known as banh da come in many forms. This version — the ‘dry’ type — is served up with tofu, fried fish, peanuts, cha ca, what looks like rau muong (morning glory), bean sprouts, fresh herbs, peanuts and pickled cucumber.
But it took a conversation with one of our photographers, Trung, to make this happen.
“Where do you live?” he asked over a cocktail.
“Oh,” he said, his eyes lighting up with joy. “There’s an amazing place selling banh da tron just right by where you live. Every time I’m in West Lake I go there.”
So one morning, using the excuse of having breakfast with one of my colleagues, I gave it a try.
Vietnamese cuisine is as much about texture as it is about matching contrasting flavours. On the texture front banh da tron runs the full spectrum. From the softness of the noodles, tofu and fish cake through to the different types of crunch provided by the morning glory, the peanuts, the fried fish and the cucumber, there is a little bit of everything in this dish.
As for taste. I’ve now been back to the same joint three times. Banh da tron is not the kind of dish I would eat every day — it’s too rich and wholesome for that. But it has already made it to the top of my eat-on-the-street list. — Nick Ross
Banh Da Tron (6 Ngo 31 Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho, Hanoi). Nowhere in Saigon seems to sell this dish yet. So for all those southerners out there, you’ll just have to wait
This was the first Vietnamese dish I ever ate. I still remember the fear as we walked down the street from our hostel in Hanoi towards the little pink dot drawn on a photocopied map given to us by the hostel’s manager. “You will love it!” she’d said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Just go! You see!”
I’m not a fussy eater, but when you’re heading to a place that has no menus, serves only one thing, and you have no idea what that ‘thing’ is — and you’ve only been in that country for a matter of hours — you might feel some apprehension.
The tiny shopfront in the Old Quarter would have been easy to miss were it not for the beautiful smell of the pork being grilled over crackling coals outside.
We hesitantly sat at a table, wide-eyed and as green as the mountain of leaves that was placed before us. The owner was a super friendly lady who seemed to sense our anxiety. I doubt we were the first tourists the hostel had sent her way. She delivered each element of the meal with a huge grin. Bowls of flavour-packed broth and pickled vegetables, a generous portion of vermicelli noodles, and then the chargrilled pork belly and ground pork patties. We had no idea where to begin. She reappeared beside us yielding a giant pair of scissors and plunged them into our noodles, snipping the mound into manageable clumps. With chopsticks she demonstrated the bun cha ritual. “This, then this, then that,” she mimed. “Then you eat.”
It quickly became my favourite Vietnamese dish. It still is. The deceptive simplicity of it all, the smoky meat, the aromatic herbs and leaves, the refreshing noodles. Above all, I think the pickled green papaya is the secret of bun cha. It’s such a tiny addition but it’s just not right without it. — Simon Stanley
Nem Cua Be @ 59 Hang Ma, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
For Those in Saigon: Bun Cha Ha Noi @ 26/1A Le Thanh Ton, Q1 or Bun Cha Anh Hong @ 140B Ly Chinh Thang, Q3
I am obsessed with seafood, especially the smaller types that take a lot of time to eat. It’s a strangely addictive feeling, like eating seeds — you already know how they’ll taste from the previous one, but you can’t stop eating them.
Where I live in Saigon, it seems others share my obsession. There is every kind of shrimp, crab, snail, clam, scallop, squid and octopus on offer, from every region of Vietnam. Seafood is Saigon’s most popular street food, scattered over 24 districts, offering different styles and prices.
And curiously, others seem even more passionate about seafood than I am. When I was in Hoi An last month, I heard cries of “Ai le oc khong?” — does anyone want snails? — coming from street vendors. Their bicycles were carrying coolers filled with millions of button-shaped snails (oc ruoc) cooked with chilli and lemongrass, and I saw quite a few people buying from them. Curious, I paid VND10,000 for a small plastic bag, with some spiky branches used for taking the flesh out. I gave up after more than 45 minutes — leaving two-thirds behind.
There was a time I thought everyone shared my obsession. Going to Australia a couple years ago, I thought there would be even more seafood there — their coastline is over 11 times longer than Vietnam’s. But I realised how wrong I was when a housemate told me that people there don’t even eat octopus.
Back in Vietnam, the seafood varieties are uncountable. And to us, all of them are edible and can be cooked in many different styles, from stir-fried with butter to grilled with chilli and salt, from steamed with lemongrass to grilled with cheese. Combined with different sauces such as muoi tieu chanh (salt, pepper and lime), nuoc mam chua ngot (sweet and sour fish sauce) and tuong ot xanh (green chilli sauce), they make for a combined flavour and texture only existing in heaven. — Vu Ha Kim Vy
Oc Dao (Alley 212B Nguyen Trai, Q1, HCMC)
Oc Quang Anh (189 To Hien Thanh, Q10, HCMC)
Oc Oanh (534 Vinh Khanh, Q4, HCMC)
Before the Doi Moi era, when it was hard to get proper hair shampoo, my mother used to boil pomelo leaves to wash the hair of my sister and I. We so loved it, the scent lasted a long time and it also made our hair soft and smooth. We were even more surprised when she showed us what else could be made from pomelo — che buoi.
After peeling off the green skin — boiled for washing hair — my mom sliced the white layer covering the fruit into many small pieces. She mixed them with two teaspoons of salt and rinsed them out, then squeezed them to dry them out. She ground up some alum — a powder used for cooking — mixed it with water and poured it into a pot. When the water reached its boiling point, the white pieces were put into the pot for a short time, taken out again and put into an ice bowl to make them crunchy and more delicious. Together with mung beans, these sliced crunchy pieces were cooked to make the beautiful che buoi. A small spoonful of coconut milk made the dessert even more beautiful.
I had a chance to flashback to my mom’s che buoi at a small street place. The owner is so nice and kind, and her che buoi is traditional, without any additives. The place opens from 10am to 6pm, and her main customers are desk-workers and students. While the che buoi is so wonderful and nice-smelling, the price is reasonable, and she’s always busy.
Each bowl she makes for customers is a masterpiece. When I had my first spoonful, the combination of pomelo and mung bean melted in my throat, leaving a light sweetness on my lips.
I have been to many places in Vietnam and tried many dishes, and che buoi is still my favourite dessert. — Chau Giang
5 Duc Vong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
For those in Saigon: You may not be able to get che buoi, but you can certainly find a number of joints serving up che. Besides Ben Thanh Market, a couple of the better joints can be found at 111 Bui Thi Xuan, Q1 and 33 Dinh Tien Hoang, Binh Thanh
What street food dish can you get in Saigon at any time of the day, anywhere in the city; for breakfast, lunch or dinner? It can only be com tam. If you’re lazy and a night-crawler like me, you’ll appreciate this. Sure, there are plenty of other kinds of exotic and interesting dishes around, but the most delicious and easiest to get is my pick.
Com tam literally means ‘broken rice’. Small grains of white rice like couscous wait steamy-hot on the roadside, paired with countless toppings of your choice. From the classically flavourful juicy pork ribs and egg meatloaf (kind of like a frittata), to newer variations like crab cake, fish cake, fried chicken and caramelised pork, they are all there to wash away your hunger and satisfy your taste buds. The most typical combination is definitely suon bi cha, pork ribs, pork skin and the egg meatloaf. It’s a Saigon classic.
Eating rice for breakfast may not be a common thing for most people, but for Saigonese like me, it is. I remember walking to school in the early morning with my grandma, and she would take me to a com tam place to eat before my classes. Freshly cooked, steamy-hot rice, juicy pork ribs coated with honey marinara sauce on the grill — everyone passing felt the pull of those com tam stalls.
When I grew up I got more familiar with the western diet — low carbs and ‘healthy’ eating. White rice is not in the ‘healthy’ list of course, “It makes you fat,” they say. So I stopped eating rice for a while.
And I didn’t start again until working all-night shifts at a restaurant, finishing at 2 or 3 in the morning, tired and starving. The only accessible food at that time was com tam. After a long night I found it was the best thing, our only option was our best option. I realised that all these nutritional facts and calories don’t matter, it’s how the food makes you feel inside that is the most important. And com tam makes me feel like a true Saigonese. — Francis Xavier
Com Tam Tu Quy @ Junction of Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Huu Cau, Q1, HCMC (Tan Dinh Market)
For Thosein Hanoi: Com Tam Sai Gon Nam Phuong @ 102E6 Bach Khoa, Hai Ba Trung
Com Rang Dua Bo
When I first arrived in Hanoi, I didn’t know where or what to eat, so I would just follow my friends and order just like them. I don’t remember the first time I had com rang dua bo, but it probably wasn’t difficult to discover.
It’s not one of the most remarkable dishes in Vietnam. You never hear anyone rave about the wonderful com rang dua bo they have eaten, nor trade the addresses of their favourite places to eat it at. Somehow any kind of noodle soup will overshadow com rang dua bo. I don’t know if it’s linked to my first drunken years in Vietnam (for me, it’s the perfect amount of rice to suck up all the alcohol I drink in one night), my intolerance to MSG or just because I like rice more than soup, but I will always prefer com rang dua bo over of a bowl of pho.
It is always great to see the cook prepare the com rang dua bo — each ingredient is fried separately, and if the cook is athletic you can see them jumping up and down with the wok. I usually have it already all mixed on one plate, but you can have it served separately — rice in one plate, the dua (pickled cabbage) and beef on another, and make your own mix.
It’s a simple dish, but if the place you go to is really good then you can taste how the beef has been marinated in ginger and fried with vegetables, which adds amazing flavour. I personally always add lots of lime juice and garlic vinegar, but that’s just me.
You can order it everywhere as most places will make it the same way. This lets me have my favourite dish anywhere, and know it will taste good even if I don’t know the particular recipe. — Julie Vola
KCC (Kien Can Cook) @ 57 Quoc Tu Giam, Dong Da, Hanoi
For Those in Saigon: This is a true northern dish. So, yes, you can get it down south but it’s not the same. The Saigonese version is com chien, but beyond a wok, rice and oil, don’t expect any similarities
When I was 14, I had my first bun mam, cooked by my eldest sister-in-law. As my sister-in-law is a foodie from Ben Tre — where bun mam landed after emigrating from Cambodia — that bun mam was unimaginably tasty.
As her life became busier, the bun mam at Nha Hang Ngon became my bun mam source while I attended university. Twice a week for four years, Ngon played host to my friends and I — and bun mam was my usual choice.
Smelling of mam ca (fermented fish paste) — which turns off some people, though here it provides a key element in the deep-rounded flavour — the bowl always attracts me from a distance. Depending on the restaurant and the style, the bowl has different ingredients. But it usually contains vermicelli noodles, eggplant, shrimp, squid, fried pork cubes and sliced fish, accompanied by heaps of sprouts, knotgrass, mint and chilli. These all give it a quirky combination of salty, sweet, sour, tangy, smelly and pungent flavours.
While not a daily mainstay, bun mam is still my favourite noodle soup. Simply, I just love it. — Vu Ha Kim Vy
Nha Hang Ngon @ 160 Pasteur, Q1, HCMC)
For Those in Hanoi: Naaah, wait till you get down south for this one.
I lived in Vung Tau, the seaside oil and holiday town close to Saigon, for way too long. Yet in the four or so years I called this peninsula city my home, I never once tried banh khot, the only dish that can truly be credited with being invented there. That all changed when I moved to Saigon.
For a long period I used to take the hydrofoil almost daily between Vung Tau and Ho Chi Minh City, and I remember seeing an eatery spring up close to the port at the end of Ham Nghi called Co Ba Vung Tau. Then close by Co Hai Vung Tau opened shop. Both specialised in banh khot, and my interest was piqued. Quickly the rivals opened additional branches around Saigon.
It was only on a weekend trip back to my former home that I finally tried this dish. I remember it well. We went to the joint that invented banh khot — Banh Khot Goc Vu Sua — sat on plastic stools at the low, chrome-topped tables, ordered two plates of the small, crispy pancakes, then three, then four, then five. When we got up to leave we were both stuffed and satisfied. I remember the word “Wow!” crossing my lips more than once.
I could talk for hours about why I love this dish. Maybe it’s the crunch of the lettuce leaf (or mustard leaf) used to wrap up the pancake. Maybe it’s the small, fried-up rice flour cake itself with its topping of both fresh and dried shrimp. Or maybe it’s how the pickled papaya and carrot strips create a perfect taste balance with the sweetness and chilli spice of the fish sauce.
But the key for me are three things, three things which I believe are central to much of southern Vietnamese cuisine. First is that — despite the banh khot being fried — with the salad and fresh herbs thrown in this is a healthy dish. Add to this the roll-it-yourself nature of the dish — there is something very satisfying about preparing your own food.
But most important is how good these pancakes are to share, to eat together in a big group. That’s the essence of Vietnamese cuisine — dining family-style with all the food placed in the centre of the table. Few individual dishes meet this dining concept as well as banh khot. — Nick Ross
Quan Banh Khot Goc Vu Sua (14 Nguyen Truong To, Vung Tau)
Banh Khot Co Ba Vung Tau (102 Cao Thang, Q3, HCMC)
Ben Ninh Kieu (78 Mai Hac De, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi)