Recipe for bánh dầy đậu – Vietnamese mung bean mochi

When I’m home, Little Mom pampers me with her food and sweeps me out of her kitchen, except when I open the fridge to snack, because her mind fixes on the idea that if she lets me touch the stove, I only make a mess. She’s right. Not to toot my own horn but when I’m home, I’m a lazy mess. So when I said Mom, let’s make bánh dầy đậu, she threw her hands up, said oh my sky there’s no more room in the fridge, made the bean paste herself, and only let me play with the dough. The mung bean paste filling is really the most important part of the Vietnamese mochi (similar to the Japanese mochi, but it’s 100% Vietnamese): you want it slightly savory, slightly sweet, and mashed. Little Mom is the queen of seasoning, so that part was flawless. My job was to knead the dough and roll up them balls. At least I didn’t have to pound steamed sticky rice into oblivion. I was kneading while watching TV with Mom. I was kneading when she sectioned her bánh bao dough into balls. I was still kneading [...]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 21 – Bánh dầy đậu (Vietnamese mung bean mochi)

Legend said the first ever bánh dầy (pronounced |beng yay|) was a flat thick bun of cooked-and-pounded sticky rice, white and chewy and not recommended for dentures. The prince, taught by a Bodhisattva in his dream, made it to represent the sky, and bánh chưng to represent the earth. I don’t think the sky is chewy, but I really like it when it’s white. I also like banh day with silk sausage a lot. But somewhere along the history of Vietnam, somebody gave banh day a mung bean filling, softened the dough (which means more pounding for the sticky rice), rolled it into the size of a pingpong ball, and coated it with mung bean powder. I can NEVER get enough of this thing. $2 for 3. Found at: Alpha Bakery & Deli (inside Hong Kong City Mall) 11209 Bellaire Blvd # C-02 Houston, TX 77072-2548 (281) 988-5222 Unfortunately, I love them so much that the store-bought version just doesn’t do it for me. With Little Mom’s help, a batch has been made. A recipe is on the way. (UPDATE: the recipe is here.) [...]

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Chat with Mr. James Luu and a peek inside Banh Cuon Tay Ho 18

Ever wonder why Banh Cuon Tay Ho has the best steamed roll of all places? Thin like a veil, never too chewy or oily, the flour never tastes sour, and the mixed fish sauce never has the bitter hint of lime. Their secrets are mysteries to me. By chance, the Lưu family who operates Tay Ho 18 in Houston stumbled on my blog post of 4 years ago and invited me to the opening week after the relocation early April, which would feature a new item: crawfish banh cuon. I couldn’t come then due to a minor distraction called school, but a month later the place is stilled packed to the rim like an Apple store the day of a new iPhone release. I managed to snatch Mr. James Lưu aside for a brief chat during lunch rush, wonder if his staff liked me or hated me for it. Leaving Vietnam in ’79, getting attacked by pirates, rescued ashore but later tricked and stranded by the natives in the Malaysian jungle, rescued by an American helicpopter after a month in the jungle, immigrated to the US as an orphan (Mr. Lưu was then 16 years old, [...]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 20 – Xôi khúc – Jersey cudweed sticky rice

There’s a Vietnamese song that starts like this: “Ten years pass by without seeing each other, I thought love had grown old/ Like the clouds that have flown by so many years, I thought we had forgotten.”(*) It then went on to say, as you might expect, that the narrator still yearns for that love like ten years ago. An even more dramatic thing happens to me: I still crave xôi khúc with the same passion of the last time I had it, which was twenty years ago. The lady who sold xôi khúc (xôi cúc if you’re from the South)(*) near our elementary school was old. In her sixties at least. She was clean, so Little Mom bought xôi from her. We never had xôi khúc from anyone else, and I don’t remember seeing anyone else selling it. Loosely wrapped in banana leaves like all other xôi(*), her xôi khúc beamed with the smell of ground black pepper in the bean paste and the cool, herbal flavor of the steamy sticky rice. After the lady stopped showing up in the mornings with her basket, we stopped having xôi khúc for breakfast. Xôi khúc is too [...]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 13 – Bánh xu xê (couple cookie)

Vietnamese When you reach(ed) mid 20s, don’t you just hear all sort of marriage announcements popping up among your social circle? By the time of college graduation, half the girls I know have gotten their wedding registry up on Facebook, and I thought okay it’s just an American thing (the wedding I mean, though the registry is American too). Then this past Christmas my best college friend missed our annual reunion for his big day in India, and another pal who I thought was still wandering the streets of Chengdu dropped the bomb that he’s engaged. Then I got news that two of my eleventh grade buddies in Vietnam are going to say the vows (not to each other) within this year. Then it really hits me. I haven’t written about any wedding party food, even though I’ve been to many weddings :D. So why not celebrate this year’s Valentine’s day with a Vietnamese confection whose name derives from the main characters of any wedding: bánh xu xê, originally called bánh phu thê, or “husband (and) wife”? My translation “couple cookie” is for the sake of consonant concordance. They are similar to [...]

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Rolling business in Tay Ho Oakland

Not many Vietnamese diners roll out steamed rice leaves stuffed with pork and mushroom, and among those that do, not many actually do it right. A good roll of banh cuon must be slick but not oily, delicate but not crumbly, the flour leaf thin but springy, the stuffing visible, almost poking through, on one side and hidden on the other, served warm. A good nuoc cham must be more sweet than salty, with a little zest of lime, and spicy is not necessary. You then pour as much of that honey-colored dipping sauce as you want all over the plate, soaking the cucumber, the bean sprout, the cha lua, and especially the rolls. You then savour. When it comes to banh cuon, Tay Ho rules, from Vietnam to America. But among the Tay Ho’s of the Bay, Tay Ho #9 in Oakland makes it best. After taking over the business from her aunt, Duyên transforms Tay Ho Oakland into an all-American restaurant with fluent-English-speaking staff (herself on weekdays and with another girl on weekends), attentive service, credit card accepting, and a list of common herbs on the [...]

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The story of Bún Xêu

Vietnamese “Are you giving Thanks?”, asks Der Miller. I should. It is my first independent Thanksgiving. There will be no turkey, not because they’re not that tender but because it’s cruel to take their lives on the day that everyone else celebrates. There will be no green bean casserole or sweet potato with marshmallow, not because I’m lazy but because I have no oven. There will be no cranberry sauce or stuffing, for no shining reason. I’ll just make the one thing that is both simple and not ramen: bún xêu. Over 2000 years ago lived a king in a foreign land, who ordered his royal kitchen staff to prepare a party to welcome his future son-in-law from another foreign land. Naturally the king wanted a feast with national specialties, which included a type of rice flour pastry with sweetened mung bean paste. The flour had to be made in the morning of the same day to avoid it turning sour, and one young kitchen helper, who probably liked to get up early as much as I do, was in charge of preparing the batter. Instead of mixing rice flour and water in a [...]

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Bún bung, sort of…

Vietnamese The scent pierces through the air, half like fresh lime and half like mint, liberating. The broth is fulfilling like juice from a just-ripe fruit, coating every strand of vermicelli and making them supple like newly washed hair. There is red, white, bright green, fall-leaf yellow green, and the earthy sepia tone of bone meat. My first bowl of bún bung. Bún bung is a noodle soup of the North. Not having been to Hanoi, I learnt about bún bung from the interweb and tasted it via imagination. My mom has heard of it, but Saigon doesn’t have it, and I don’t know how popular it is in Hanoi today. It wouldn’t surprise me if the old fashion noodle soup is only half surviving in the baskets of old ladies dressing in brown and having their teeth dyed black. Anyway, it has a funny name. Bún (pronounced like “boon” with a quick rising accent) is just the usual rice vermicelli. Bung (pronounced like “bung” in “übung” in German – English doesn’t have this sound) is the method of cooking: stir fry first, then simmer until boil in water. There’s no adequate [...]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 5 – Bánh khảo (bánh in)

It looks just slightly bigger than a chocolate bar, and about as thick. It has three thin layers, one bright yellow sandwiched between two whites, like a rectangular slice of hard boiled egg. The humble appearance of bánh khảo, like so many other Vietnamese old school treats, masks tremendous creativity and skill of the country’s villagers. And so little is known about it. Some just say it came from the Chinese immigrants, others believe it’s a special fare of the Tày, an ethnic group in the second-farthest-north-border province Cao Bằng, where Chinese influence seeps through the forests and mutates with a mountainous feel. All we know is when you go to Cao Bằng, you get a bar of “pẻng cao” (bánh khảo) for 1000VND (less than 6 US cents), whose middle layer can either be sweet with peanuts and honey, or savory with sliced fatty pork. The savory kind is a staple to the Tày people. The flour from roasted sticky rice grains, let sit overnight, mixed with sugar and pressed into a thin sheet, somehow can stay good for a whole month. Its light weight makes a good dry snack [...]

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Bodega Bistro – Defining authenticity

The laminated page has Goi Cuon next to Fritures de Calmars, Bo Luc Lac between Rossini style Tournedos and Agneau. Funny interlingual names like “Ap Chow Bo” and “Ap Chow Hai San” precede English descriptions of stir fries. Don’t bother google “ap chow”. Such innovative term doesn’t exist outside the menu of Bodega Bistro. Just like the dialogues between Jim and Huckleberry Finn, names like these can’t be understood unless you speak it out loud in your head. Ap chow is áp chảo, “press against the pan”, a Vietnamese way of saying pan fry. Why did the chef phonetically transform it into Chinese, while keeping Goi Cuon and Bo Luc Lac true to their original spellings? I don’t know, but I got a chuckle out of it. The menu alone, however, didn’t strike me as anything unusual. This wasn’t the first time I had to decode a strange name for a familiar dish. Vietnamese menus tend to have such mix between trying to keep the Vietnamese name and (mis)translating it into some other language. The unusual thing was that our thought-to-be-Vietnamese waiter didn’t understand me when I said the dishes’ names [...]

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