Bánh is probably the most diverse category in Vietnamese cuisine. It encompasses all bite-sized dishes that can be eaten by hand or chopsticks. Generally, there are two types of bánh: savory and sweet. They represent the skill and creativity of Vietnamese chefs.
If there is one Vietnamese word that I find puzzled is the word bánh. Literally, it can be translated as “cake” or “bread”. But in broad terms, it indicates anything that has a circular shape, such as wheels, gears, and soaps. In the world of Vietnamese cuisine, bánh is interpreted as snacks; a dish that can be eaten by hand or chopsticks. For instance, dumplings, buns, rolls, pastries, and the famous bánh mì. In some special cases, it also refers to certain varieties of noodles, such as bánh canh and bánh hỏi.
There is an endless variety of bánh in Vietnamese cuisine. They are commonly made of rice flour or glutinous rice. Other ingredients such as cassava flour, taro flour, and tapioca starch are also used. The cooking methods are equally diverse as bánh can be steamed, baked, fried, deep-fried, or boiled. They also come in a wide range of shapes, from rolls, and squares, to classical circular forms. In this article, I will introduce some savory bánh that is beloved across Vietnam. Needless to say, there are sweet varieties but let us save it for another post.
1. Bánh mì
When it comes to Vietnamese street food, few dishes are as iconic as bánh mì. It is the quintessential snack that the locals crave because of its richness in flavors, handiness, and affordability. Bánh mì is basically a sandwich, but instead of two pieces of white bread, there is a French baguette with a golden crisp crust and soft, airy texture.
The baguette is split lengthwise and packed with various savory ingredients. Virtually, it can be filled with anything, from fried fish cakes, and meatballs with ketchup, to roasted pork. But a traditional bánh mì should include pickled carrots, pickled daikon, coriander, chili flakes, Vietnamese ham, egg mayonnaise, and most importantly pâté. Made out of pork liver, this ingredient is the chef’s signature and makes the soul of this dish.
While it is easy to get enticed by the flavors of bánh mì, it would be interesting to know about the history of this distinctive baguette. The bánh mì as we know it today is believed to have originated in Saigon in the 1950s. More specifically it was invented in an eatery in District 3 called Hoa Ma (still operating).
Following the French withdrawal, the baguette – previously affordable only by the colonists – became available to the Vietnamese chefs. They combined it with local ingredients to make a dish more appetizing for the masses. Over time, the delicious baguette gained international recognition and became a representative of the country’s cuisine abroad. Yet for many Vietnamese, bánh mì is always a humble and hearty comfort food that comes from an aluminum food cart on the side of the street.
2. Bánh xèo
No less popular is the savory crepe called bánh xèo. Loosely translated as “sizzling cake”, this dish takes its name from the sound when the flour batter is poured into the hot skillet. It contains a thin crispy sheet made of rice flour, water, and turmeric powder, which in turn is filled with a wide variety of ingredients such as pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, mung beans, and even squids. The whole cake is then wrapped in lettuce with fresh herbs and pickled vegetables, before being dipped in sweet and sour fish sauce.
Just like cơm tấm, bánh xèo was initially the food for the working class as they are inexpensive and easy to make. Its origin is obscure, however, most agree that it first appeared in Central Vietnam. Some believe that the Chams were the first to develop this dish, while others argue that it’s a derivation from bánh khoái – a specialty of the former imperial capital. Regardless of where it comes from, bánh xèo reflects three characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine: simple, delightfully textured, and rich in flavors.
3. Bánh khoái
From the bright yellow-colored appearance, and the crispiness, to the topping made of porks, shrimps, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and onions, this specialty of Hue is rumored to be the origin of bánh xèo. Even the sides are very similar, with pickled vegetables and fresh herbs. However, bánh khoái is markedly thicker and smaller in size as it’s baked in a hot pan.
Another distinctive feature is the condiment. Unlike the omnipresent sweet and sour fish sauce, bánh khoái is accompanied by a sophisticated thick sauce made of peanut, soya sauce, ground liver, and a wide array of spices. It accentuated the flavor of the pancake, without ruining its structure and texture.
4. Bánh bột lọc and its varitation
Another delicacy of Huế is bánh bột lọc, which means “clear flour cake”. It’s a little, clear-looking dumpling stuffed with whole-grilled shrimp and seasoned pork belly. The translucent skin is achieved by using tapioca starch. This ingredient also makes the dish chewy. When serving, the dumplings are sprinkled with fried shallots and accompanied by sweet chili fish sauce.
Similar to bánh bột lọc, bánh nậm also has fillings made of shrimp and pork. Yet the ingredients are ground and spread on the batter, before wrapping in banana leaves and then steaming. The batter only contains rice flour, granting the dish a milky white appearance and a silky texture. This snack should be served right after cooked with fish sauce.
5. Bánh bèo
Hue is also the birthplace of bánh bèo, or “water fern cake”. Basically, it’s a flimsy rice cake that is made by steaming a mixture of rice flour and tapioca starch. It’s then topped with dried shrimp, crispy pork skin, scallion oil, and a drizzle of mixed fish sauce.
Most often, bánh bèo is served directly on a tray, with eight to ten minuscule plates. Guests will scrap each individual cake out by spoon and eat whole. In this way, they can experience both the silky texture and the addictive flavor of this dish. Another (challenging) way is using chopsticks to pinch the fragile cake off the plates.
6. Bánh căn and its variation
A popular dish among Cham communities, bánh căn is a batch of mini pancakes cooked in a traditional terracotta pan. The pancake batter is first poured into the circular molds, before baking to perfection over charcoals. That means the outer should be a bit charred, while the inside is still soft and moisturized. The cakes are then used to sandwich a combination of minced pork, shrimp, scallion oil, and even quail eggs. Often, bánh căn is served with an assortment of condiments, such as meatball sauce, or fish sauces with chili and sliced young mango.
A variation of bánh căn is bánh khọt which is believed to originate from Vung Tau. The toppings and the cooking process are nearly identical. Yet instead of baking in the clay pan, the cakes are fried on a special cast-iron pan. As a result, bánh khọt is crispier. When serving, the dish is dipped in fish sauce with chili and pickled green papaya. Fresh herbs and leafy vegetables are also used as wrappers.
7. Bánh cuốn and its variation
Up north, one of the most popular breakfast items in Hanoi is bánh cuốn, or “rolling cake”. As the name suggests, they are steamed rice rolls stuffed with wood ear mushrooms and seasoned ground pork. The dish is characterized by a thin and delicate sheet made by steaming rice flour batter on a fabric-covered pot of boiling water. When done, the rolls are sprinkled with crispy fried shallots and served together with Vietnamese hams, fresh herbs, and chili fish sauce.
Bánh cuốn has a variation called bánh ướt. They are simply the unfilled rice sheets that are beloved because of their silky texture. Sides for this dish are similar to its origin, consisting of Vietnamese hams, fried shallots, aromatic herbs, bean sprouts, and fish sauce.
8. Bánh giò
Another specialty of the Red River Delta is bánh giò – a pyramidical dumpling wrapped in banana leaf, hence the name (with giò means “being wrapped”). Steaming in banana leaf not only imbues the cake with a pleasant smell but also makes it portable.
This dish is famous for its combination of thick, soft outer, and hearty fillings that include ground pork and wood ear mushrooms. Its chewy, fluorescent white skin is achieved by adding tapioca starch to the rice flour batter. This cake is a meal in itself and thus can be served alone.