When one thinks of Vietnamese breakfast, the many different noodle soups that litter the street food landscape come to mind. Most of the time, that is true for me as I can hardly turn down a great bowl of pho. But when I do, it’s probably for banh cuon.
What is banh cuon?
The dish originates from the north and is perfect for cold mornings. Banh cuon consists of several rolled sheets of steamed rice paper filled with minced pork, onions and wood ear mushrooms. The rolled rice sheets are steamed on a thin sheet of fabric similar to muslin just above boiling water. The batter is ladled onto the sheet and spread around almost like a crepe. A cover is placed on the pot and left on for about a minute. It’s pretty amazing to see as really busy banh cuon vendors run two pots at the same time, alternating between ladling and rolling.
Once the sheet is cooked, it is separated from the fabric using a wooden stick. It is then placed onto an oiled sheet and the fillings are added. The rolls are cut up using some scissors and a few are placed on a plate. In the north, the rolls are served simply with a variety of cha lua (steamed pork rolls), fried shallots and a sprinking of chopped basil. In the south, they add some steamed bean sprouts as well.
The dipping sauce varies quite a bit between the north and south. While fish sauce is the main ingredient in both sauces, there are differences are distinct. In the north, it’s more like a broth and served hot. It is also flavoured with a drop of the essence of ca cuong, a water beetle from the north. The essence gives the broth a sweetness reminiscent of green apple.
Banh cuon in the south uses the ubiquitous nuoc cham dipping sauce found in most dishes. A medley of fish sauce, lime, sugar and garlic blend together to make the sauce.
How to eat banh cuon?
There are two methods I have seen and both work great. You can either dip or dump. Dipping takes a bit more dexterity with chopsticks as the rolls can be a bit slippery. Also getting all the elements onto the chopstick can also take some serious chopstick skills. Dumping the sauce onto the plate makes things a little easier as you can do the chopstick-spoon combination. I find this method much easier and tastier as you can layer the elements of the dish onto the spoon for the perfect bite.
How much should I pay for banh cuon?
Expect to pay 20,000VND for a plate of banh cuon. It could be cheaper depending on the variety of cha lua that you can get. There is a variation of the dish called banh uot which doesn’t have any meat filling. It tends to be 5,000VND cheaper if you your budget can’t handle the extra cost.
Where do I find banh cuon?
Banh cuon is strictly a breakfast dish so you will be hard pressed to find it after 10am. My go to place is in the alleyway on 42 Hoang Dieu in District 4 as they serve nem chua (a cured pork roll) and a crouton as boot!