My mom is a skeptic about street snacks, most of the time because of the fingers handling them, but this thing passed. Like xoi, it should always be served hot right out of the steamer. Cool it down with a few blows of air and hurry it in the mouth; it may be wet and chewy, or it may be floury and nutty. But it’s distinctively cassava.
Back home, khoai mì hấp (steamed cassava) is among the cheapest Saigon street scoffs, because khoai mì (cassava root) is cheap (2000VND/kg these days, about 5 cents/lb), and the making is beyond simple. You boil the roots, then keep it warm and moist in a steamer. Unlike banh bao vendors, you keep the lid open to let out burly rolls of steam and invitation. The cone hat ladies sometimes add pandan leaves in the water, those ivory chunks then smell as sweet as spring rains. A customer comes, you scoop him a few palmfuls into a nylon bag and forget not the coconut shavings and the classic salt-sugar-sesame mix. A true street scoffer would eat with his fingers, probably holding the thick center string (the root’s woody cordon) to nibble on without touching its hot flesh.
I mix salt, sugar and my memory of what steamed cassava should taste like into the $1 prepackaged clump at Bánh Mì Ba Lẹ in Oakland, after microwaving it for one minute. The roots are dry and flavorless, probably out from a frozen section. But I taste only my younger days.
Address: Bánh Mì Ba Lẹ (East Oakland)
1909 International Blvd
Oakland, CA 94606