Street Food: Banh bot loc chan

In this month’s Street Snacker, Huyen Tran explores the season’s longing for dumplings. Photos by David Harris

In this cold, it is easy to understand when we suddenly have a longing for dumplings. Let’s discover the Banh bot loc chan on Thuy Khue street. Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by David Harris.The article was published on Word Vietnam Magazine – Issue December 2014.

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While exploring Vietnamese cuisine, you’ll find that northern Vietnam’s foods adapt accordingly to the weather. When autumn comes, Hanoians consider it a must to treat themselves to at least a handful of com, young green rice. And what a miss if their summer is without the sour taste of qua sau, dracontomelum! And — when the November weather gets pleasantly mild and cool during the day, with a colder breeze at night — it is natural that we suddenly have a craving for a hot banh gio (a rice pyramid dumpling), a bowl of chao trai (clam rice porridge) or a hot bowl of banh bot loc — Vietnamese pork and shrimp dumplings.

Pho and banh my have become some of the world’s top Vietnamese street foods, but not many know that the simple banh bot loc is also ranked among the best dumplings in the world. Banh bot loc is made from pork and shrimp, with wrappers made from tapioca flour. When cooked, the tapioca becomes clear, giving the dumpling a translucent appearance and the wrapper its chewy texture. There are two major variants of the dish: wrapped in banana leaves and steamed — or boiled.

Born in Hue, Raised in Hanoi

Banh bot loc originated in Hue, a banana leaf-wrapped traditional version still made today. The banana leaves add a nice aroma to the food, both natural and gentle. The fresh shrimp is considered the key to a delicious banh bot loc, creating a sweet and rich taste in your mouth. Pork fat inside is also common, not so with the Hanoi version. The combination of fresh shrimp, pork fat and chilli sauce gives it that imperial Hue feeling.

Hanoi is famous for simple dishes, whose fresh ingredients distinguish them from those made in other places. While Hanoi can’t boast the fresh seafood of Hue, the Hanoi version focuses on the freshness of pork meat and other ingredients. With sautéed whole shrimps, minced belly pork, scallions and crispy pork fat, Hanoians make sure the ingredients are perfectly mixed before they are stuffed inside the tapioca flour shell.

Then comes the sauce. There are two variants: cold and hot fish sauce. The latter is the surefire choice for this time of year. Among the very few eateries serving banh bot loc with hot fish sauce in Hanoi, Banh Bot Loc Co Thuong at 198 Thuy Khue is said to be the best.

18 Years of a Consistent ‘Hot Fish Sauce’ Formula

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Said to be the very first eatery in Hanoi to have the idea of serving banh bot loc with hot fish sauce, Banh Bot Loc Co Thuong has been serving the dish for 18 years. The dumpling here is served in a bowl of hot fish sauce, with mint and other herbs.

“The sauce is definitely different, both the smell and the taste!” a diner said. “When it’s boiled, the fish sauce has a distinct smell, you can immediately recognise when the food is on the way. But you might still be surprised when you have the first sip — it’s the perfect blend, which is even better with the taste of mint leaves.”

The chef says, “Many people say they don’t ever tire of the sauce. The more they eat, they more sauce they want. Our formula is broth from fresh pork ribs, with shrimp, cooked for hours before adding fish sauce. That’s the reason for its sweetness.

“The sauce is our key and the main difference between us and others. The owner of the shop, who was born in Saigon, brought that idea to the table. She also ships fish sauce and chilli from there to make enough banh bot loc for everyday demand.”

For myself and other former students of Chu Van An High School on Thuy Khue, this eatery is an essential part of our memory. Even now, it’s not much different from the days when we were students. It used to be a ritual for students like us to gather in the corner of the shop, enjoying the dumplings and looking for our past signatures on the white-coloured walls, which are filled with thousands of signatures — including those of many celebrities.

Time flies and people drift apart, but whenever we come back for the dish, it feels like we are sipping every moment of our past.

Banh Bot Loc Co Thuong is located at 198 Thuy Khue, Tay Ho, Hanoi. A bowl of banh bot loc costs VND20,000

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