There are many places to eat banh cuon in the capital. But one eatery does this dish just that little bit differently to make it stand out from the crowd. Words by me. Photos by David Harris. The article was published on Word Vietnam magazine – Issue May 2014.
Summer in Hanoi is on its way. During this time of the year, with the transitioning weather in northern Vietnam, I’m not immune to the common confusion on what to eat for breakfast, since the muggy weather definitely causes a loss of appetite.
In the heat of the morning, the decision is clear — banh cuon, or steamed rice rolls. For the summer, there’s no better choice than light and delicate yet flavourful rolls, dipped into warm fish sauce with fresh herbs.
The question is where to go. Famous eateries like Banh Cuon Hang Ga (14 Hang Ga, Hoan Kiem),Banh Cuon Ba Hoanh (66 To Hien Thanh, Hai Ba Trung) or Banh Cuon Gia An (25 Thai Phien, Hai Ba Trung) aren’t quite what I have pictured for this early morning, when I’d rather find a small corner to enjoy and relax.
So, I decide to head for Banh Cuon Phuong (68 Hang Cot, Hoan Kiem). Arriving at this banh cuon eatery on a quiet corner block around 7am, it is peaceful and silent — a rarity in the Old Quarter. An elegant, elderly lady is pouring thin silky liquid batter on a stretched muslin cloth over a large pot of boiling water. Her daughter keeps wrapping the sheet with minced pork while quiet diners are enjoying their banh cuon in the calm. Featured in a cooking programme a few years back made by well-known Vietnamese-Australian chef, Luke Nguyen, this eatery has been seen around the world. Yet it remains endearingly local.
Treats Done Differently
The neat and tidy eatery offers many types of banh cuon, but their signature dish is banh cuon ruoc tom, or shredded shrimp banh cuon with cha que — my choice for this early morning. Not two minutes after I order, the beautifully presented banh cuon plate is in front of me, with salted and shredded shrimp meat on top of the white and tender rolls. The dark brown cha que looks irresistible, and the dipping sauce — fresh Vietnamese mint and sliced chillis — is ready to be added.
What is most interesting in this banh cuon eatery is the big pot of fish sauce on each table, free for diners to take as much as they want. The sauce here is also distinct from other eateries, as there is sliced nam huong, or shiitake mushroom in it.
“The mushroom makes the sauce tender, sweet and rich,” says the old lady. “But more importantly, it is really good for people’s health. That’s why I decided to put it into the sauce.”
Locals often say that the thinner the white rice paper on banh cuon, the better the roll tastes. Here at this corner eatery, the thin rice paper covers clearly visible ingredients, a sign of its taste.
“Everyone knows that tasty banh cuon requires thin rice paper, but making nice rice paper is quite tricky for many people,” the owner explains, who opened her eatery more than 30 years ago. “It should not be in the steam any more or any less than 30 seconds. Then, slide the thin rice paper onto an oiled tray and scoop a tablespoon of minced pork with wood-ear mushroom onto the sheet, and fold to form a perfect roll.”
On an early Hanoian morning, before the Old Quarter wakes, this local eatery is a perfect breakfast choice. For those who have not yet tried banh cuon ruon tom, it’s easy to fall in love with its light, flavourful and earthy rolls.
Banh Cuon Phuong is located at 68 Hang Cot, Hoan Kiem. Banh cuon ruoc tom paired with cha que costs VND40,000 per plate.