Where the best banh my thit xien nuong in the city? The king of banh my thit xien nuong in my mind is always Banh my Ba Nga – Quang Trung street. Words by me. Photos by Francis Roux. The article was published on Word Vietnam Magazine Issue January 2014.
When I was growing up, my grandmother told me, “Bread is the dish of Western people, brought to Vietnam by the French. It is only for urban or upper class people. It is expensive and not for the working class like us…”
Today, this sounds far-fetched. For many years, bread or banh my (banh mi in the south), has been one of Vietnam’s street food staples.
Banh my can be found everywhere. On the street pavements, on street corners, on hawkers’ bikes, in street food eateries and even on food stops on the highway.
Yet Vietnamese banh my differs from its original Western counterpart. The baguette is only about 20cm long and it is soft and airy inside with a crispy crust. The name, too, reflects the way this bread is viewed and eaten in Vietnam — the word banh my is a combination of banh or cake with my or flour. A cake made from flour. And as it’s a cake, it is certainly not a main dish. Instead it’s often eaten as a snack.
Besides the standard version with pate or egg, banh my thit xien or bread with grilled skewered pork is another way of eating banh my in Hanoi. The sweet smell of barbecued pork mingled in the afternoon air of the piercing cold gives you have no choice but to stop your bike and treat yourself. Go to Banh my thit xien Ba Nga at 31 Quang Trung, Hoan Kiem and you will find one of the best versions available in the city.
Known for its grilled skewered pork, which is sweet, fresh and tender, with a strong flavour, this eatery was opened in 2000. At the time, it was a corner street stall sat between two trees on Quang Trung with the owner, Ms. Nga, slowly barbecuing the pork with her hand-held fan every afternoon.
All in the pork
“My mother started the skewered pork stand to sell to school kids and local residents,” says Ba Nga’s daughter. “At the time every skewered pork stand was called Thit xien nuong Quang Dong because people used to think that skewered pork had its origins in Guangdong in China. So, if they named their stand ‘Guangdong’, customers would be more interested.
“But many customers said that my mother’s skewered pork had a very different taste. So she decided to create a small board, Thit xien nuong Ba Nga, with her name on as a way to associate her name with the taste she created.”
So what is the secret of making such an appetizing dish?
“The key is in the pork,” she continues. “Many cooks think they should marinate the pork the previous night and leave it until the next morning. That is not the way it should be. Every day we start our work at 6am. We season the pork with salt, pepper, sugar, sesame and citronella. Then we put the seasoned pork into the fridge. It is not necessary to mix the pork the previous night. Also, as the pork is processed within one day, it is fresh and sweet. That explains why our thit xien is tender, sweet and fresh.”
According to the lady, another crucial factor is the quality of the pork and ensuring that it comes from a fairly young animal. In the case of Ba Nga, the meat is from the shoulder, which is neither fat nor lean.
People who come to this roadside diner will notice the lady sitting near the big tree grilling the skewered pork every afternoon until late. She is Ba Nga. “My mother is very careful to grill the pork in the perfect way. She asks us to do it in four steps. And the very last step, when the pork is medium raw to perfectly cooked, is done by my mother.”
Banh my thit xien Ba Nga is at 31 Quang Trung, Hoan Kiem. The eatery is open from 10am to 8.30 pm. Skewered pork is sold at VND10,000 per skewer and with a banh my costs VND13,000.