Hanoian’s like to snack. And when it comes to their favourite bites, banh gio, a savoury, pyramid-like dumpling found all over the capital, sits top of the pile. Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by Vu Bao Khanh. The article is published on Word Vietnam issue July 2015.
In Hanoi, streetside food stalls can be found everywhere — from hidden alleys in the Old Quarter to newly-constructed roads in the expanding city, to the makeshift afternoon stalls set up by wondering street peddlers. This is why as the sun goes down, it is difficult for Hanoians to resist the temptation to snack.
The range of Hanoi’s snack food is diverse. From nom or mixed salad, oc luoc or boiled snails, banh ran or deep-fried glutinous rice ball to small bowls of pho on street pavements, these snacks have become a part of the city’s daily routine. Among these tempting snacks, banh gio or a pyramid-shaped rice dough dumpling, is a favourite. Filled with pork, shallots, minced mushroom and pepper, the dumpling comes wrapped in banana leaf.
Against the Grain
I remember reading an article where a writer described banh gio as second to none on Hanoi’s diverse menu of street food. For me, this traditional dumpling is a dish that contradicts many norms.
First, banh gio is best eaten hot, making it ideal for wintertime when every bite of the dumpling embraces the cold enveloping your body. Yet, in the heat of the Hanoi summer, this dumpling is equally as popular. Streetside stalls selling this heavenly dish are crammed with customers. And people eat banh gio at any time of the day — for breakfast, as a snack or even for lunch.
As a rule of thumb, Vietnamese food is well-presented. However, banh gio is absolutely not. Some people think the pyramid shape gives the dumpling a sublime look. Personally, banh gio looks ugly to me. Both its appearance in the steamed green banana leaf and even the white and smooth dumpling inside, do not look tempting. However, in English there is a saying — looks deceive. In Vietnamese this translates to “tot go hon tot nuoc son” or good wood is better than good paint, a perfect description of banh gio.
Tasty banh gio can be bought in markets, alleyways and near schools. Many head to the crossroad of Ngo Thi Nham and Tran Xuan Soan to satisfy their cravings, while others go to the banh gio eatery at 5 Thuy Khue or to the stalls in Nguyen Cong Tru Market.
“The dumpling looks simple, but it is very healthy. The white dumpling wrapped in green banana leaf is regarded as the quintessence of heaven and earth,” says a vendor who has sold banh gio for more than 20 years at the crossroads of Ngo Thi Nham.
The pyramid-shaped dumpling is made from a mixture of ingredients including plain rice flour, minced lean meat, shallots, minced mushroom and pepper. “The process of stirring and kneading flour is the most important. This determines whether the dumpling is delicious or not,” continues the vendor, who prefers to remain anonymous but is said to make the best dough in Hanoi.
Banh gio is always kept hot within rattan baskets under sheets of insulating plastic. When diners order, the vendor unwraps the parcel, cutting away superfluous leaf and presents the dumpling on a plastic plate. The dumpling is then topped with condiments including cucumber paired with gio lua or Vietnamese sausage, gio bo (beef sausage) and often cha com (ham with young rice).
“Many young Hanoians like eating banh gio with cha com and cucumber,” says Ms. Hoa, the owner of the banh gio joint on Thuy Khue. According to Hoa, every afternoon she sells several hundred banh gio.
As well as the above condiments, another pre-requisite is chilli sauce in squirt bottles. However, a friend of mine believes that banh gio should not have condiments added to it. It is tasty enough to eat by itself. I couldn’t agree more.
Banh gio can be found at Banh Gio Thuy Khue, 5 Thuy Khue, Tay Ho; the vendor at the crossroads of Ngo Thi Nham and Tran Xuan Soan, Hai Ba Trung or in Nguyen Cong Tru Market. Banh gio costs from VND15,000 to VND30,000 (including condiments)