The article was published on Word Vietnam Magazine Issue March 2014. Words by me. Photos by Francis Roux.
While walking along Hang Dao on our way to exploring the city, my Scottish friend — who had been in Hanoi for only a few weeks — was overcome with curiosity when she saw a few peddlers selling small rice balls in their baskets.
“Hey, I just saw some ladies with baskets full of small ball-shaped cake in different colours,” she said. “Some are orange, some are white like snowballs, and some others are brown. Are they all the same?”
In response, I bought her a few to taste. “They’re deep-fried glutinous rice balls, or fried cake in short,” I explained. “They’re called banh ran in the North and banh cam in the South.
“In general, there are two types of Vietnamese banh ran — sweet and salted,” I continued. “The ones that the street peddlers have are sweet, and they are usually ball-shaped or flat. The salted version is often oval. For both, the outer shell is made from glutinous rice flour, but for the filling, the sweet banh ran is made from sweetened mung bean paste while the salted type is made from a mixture of minced pork meat and mushroom, and is dipped into fish sauce.”
It’s commonly believed that the sweet form of banh ran appeared earlier. People in Vietnam say that the traditional banh ran of Hanoi are actually banh ran luc lac, with ‘luc lac’, meaning ‘shaking’. Traditionally, the filling was made separate from the shell so that when they’re shaken, you can hear the filling rattle against the inside of the shell. Yet, nowadays, few cooks can make this shaking banh ran.
Tiny, but Mighty
But this doesn’t mean that the other types of banh ran are not as delicious as banh ran luc lac. One eatery on O Quan Chuong is famous for its banh ran, which is made from simple ingredients. The shop is consistently full of surprises, including the tiny size of the banh ran sold there.
And the eatery itself is almost as small as the tiny cakes it offers, with no signage to mark it. Only a large, boiling frying pan of banh ran seems to signal customers. Yet, contrary to its size, the eatery sells thousands of the cakes every day.
The high demand means that the banh ran here is sold straight out of the frying pan. The shop is well-known for its carefully selected ingredients and the glutinous rice, which creates a crispy outer shell. The filling inside is soft, light and sweet.
“It has been so long since I began selling banh ran on this small corner,” says Ms. Cuc, who has been purveying her trade in this spot since the 1990s. “The banh ran remains unchanged, but life changes so fast. [Customers] used to come here and buy banh ran for takeaway. But now, we deliver and even have name cards.”
She says that although the preparation method has changed, the taste that Hanoians crave remains the same. People still prefer eating small banh ran, since, she says, “the bigger it is, the fatter you feel.”
Get it just right
“The secret of banh ran is in the glutinous rice,” continues Ms. Cuc. “It has to be good quality, for sure. But most important is the ratio between glutinous rice and normal rice. I have no formula or percentage — it is the sense of the experienced cook that dictates the amounts of each type of rice and how much water you use. [I know] just by looking at it.”
Many say that banh ran is best during winter, since the cake will warm you up without creating a thirst or a feeling of fattiness. With the last days of winter coming to a close, now is the time to sample banh ran before the summer heat sets in.
The eatery is located on O Quan Chuong, at the intersection of O Quan Chuong, Hang Dieu and Thanh Ha, between the bun oc and cha ruoi shop. Banh ran is sold at VND1,000 per piece. When the eatery is too packed for seating, they offer paper bags for takeaway