Among the myriad Vietnamese dishes made with rice, be it main courses, side-dishes or snacks that are meals in themselves, the softest gluey texture belongs to the banh gio (rice dough dumpling with minced pork and wood ear mushrooms inside).
About Banh gio
As both main versions of the New Year celebrated in the country, based on Gregorian and Lunar calendars, approach, many Vietnamese citizens begin, mentally and actually, rubbing their hands in anticipation of treating themselves to snacks that seem to be at their tastiest best in winter.
These include the banh chung (square sticky rice cake), banh giay (white flat cake made of glutinous rice with or without mung beans inside), banh ran (fried pancake), banh tom Ho Tay (deep fried shrimp cakes in west lake) and banh gio (rice dough dumpling with minced pork and wood ear mushrooms).
The last mentioned snack, the banh gio, is favoured as a breakfast dish and as an after-school supper dish for children. A banh gio served hot stands alongside a bowl of steaming hot, aromatic pho as dishes of choice on a misty, chilly morning in the capital city.
To appreciate its lure, imagine you are tucking yourself into a warm blanket, thinking it is too cold to go out for food. It is at this time that you hear the itinerant banh gio vendor shouting out his ware. Just the thought of biting into the hot juicy cake gets you out of bed in a jiffy, sending a small prayer of gratitude for the vendor appearing just at that moment.
And at just VND15,000 to 30,000 (70 cents to US$1.4) each, a banh gio offers great value for money.
The pyramid-shaped rice dough dumpling is wrapped in layers of banana leaves. Once the leaves have been removed to reveal the translucent dumpling, expert eaters just bite into it cupping the leaves in their hands, but spreading the leaves out and using a teaspoon is a far “safer” option in terms of avoiding a mess.
Once the teaspoon cuts into the cake, the filling of minced pork, wood ear mushrooms and shallots is uncovered and it can be eaten with the covering-filling proportion best left to individual preferences.
Inside the mouth, it seems to melt on the tongue, with the soft exterior and well-cooked filling making the whole cake tender and aromatic.
Eating the good rice dough, one feels like it melts in their tip of the tongue. The filling which features both fat and lean minced pork and wood ear, is often over cooked, therefore, it is very tender, soft and aromatic.
Banh gio is sometimes served with cha, gio (Vietnamese sausage), grilled pork, chilli sauce and cucumber. In some places, banh gio is dipped in soya sauce before it is eaten.
Banh gio in Hanoi cuisine
While the cake is a popular dish in Hanoi, it is particularly favoured by students, for whom it is a tasty, affordable snack. As a result, many food stalls near schools sell this delicacy. It is also sold in most markets, and on many streets in Hanoi. As it is served as breakfast or supper, some eateries offering this dish only open in the morning or late afternoon.
Madam Luy’s banh gio seems to be a favourite among Hanoians. The modest eatery on a corner of Tran Xuan Soan Street near the Hom Market is always filled with customers. The texture of rice dough is soft and smooth like jelly and the gio cha served with the cake is also highlight of the treat.
“I usually buy two cakes every time I come here. It’s still hot when I open them at home. The cake is always fresh and sells out very quickly. It has a very enticing smell and is not dry or too condense,” said 25-year-old Pham Thu Cuc.
“Her eatery sells mostly gio and cha (Vietnamese sausage) and is famous for this food yet banh gio is truly a highlight also,” said Cuc.
Where to enjoy Banh Gio
The Dong Cac Street is also famous for banh gio. The highlight of the cake served in this street lies in the accompanying dish – tasty fried sausage and grilled pork. It costs about VND30,000 for a big portion of banh gio served with Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork and cucumber.
Thuy Khue Street is also well known for its big sized banh gio, nearly double compared to those served in other eateries. Nguyen Thi Nha, a banh gio shop owner on the street sells 500 to 600 cakes a day.
One avid customer, Hoang Phuong, 21, said: “Whenever the weather gets cold, I start missing banh gio. It reminds of my days as a high school student, when my friends and I would gather in small eateries to enjoy this cake, almost every late afternoon in winter.”
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