They all look the same. A myriad of things wrapped in wilted banana leaves sitting on the counter at a banh mi shop. Few patrons seem to notice the snacks as they occupy themselves with sandwich orders and the more meal-like rice or noodle to-gos, so much to the extent that the sellers too have little interest in selling their counter treats. Humbly, I point to these slender, charred and dry parcels piled in a box near the Pockys and inquire about their name. The hostess throws me half a glance infused with boredom, “Chuối nướng,” she moves her lips. So “grilled banana” they are.
It takes an utterly simple form: a banana inside a sticky rice shell inside a banana leaf, charcoal grilled. Crispy, then chewy, then gooey sweet it goes as you sink your teeth through the bounteousness. It’s the factoriless meatless corn dog sans wooden stick of Southern Vietnam. Children would wait around old grandmas in the ‘hood to watch them grill the banana dogs and drool; adults would grab the banana dogs for breakfast, lunch, or late night snack when a wind chills and the grill warms.
It’s one of those things that can’t go wrong. Some cook the sticky rice plain, then serve the grilled dog sectioned and bathed in coconut milk with a pinch of sesame salt or peanut salt. Others do it My Tho style: the sticky rice is cooked in coconut milk and later mixed with coconut shavings before wrapped and grilled. Many cloth their nana dogs with just a band of nana leaf, mainly for easy handling of the sticky rice on the grill and near other dogs, but the dogs get crispier too. Meanwhile, Ba Lẹ ladies bundle up their dogs like they would with bánh tét, less charred, more aroma from the leaves.
Like banana bread pudding, banana dogs are exclusively made with chuoi su, a solid, stout, dense and white banana that grows like weed in the Asian tropics but is nonexistent in the States. The sad substitute Cavendish lacks consistency and sweetness and gooeyness. Yet, chuối nếp nướng still hits the spot like waltzing in the rain.
These nana ricewiches, as Noodlepie lovingly nicknamed, were 2000VND a steal (~10 US cents with the current exchange rate) in 2005. In 2007 the Gastronomer took the bite for 3000VND. I have no idea how much they cost now on the Saigon streets, with crazy inflation it might just be 10000 for all I know. But here at Bánh Mì Ba Lẹ in Oakland, nana dogs will go home with you for $1.75 each.
Address: Bánh Mì Ba Lẹ (East Oakland)
1909 International Blvd
Oakland, CA 94606