Of my two hundred fifty some posts so far, this Sandwich Shop Goodies series brings me the most joy when writing and also takes me the longest time per post. It’s a collection of the bits and pieces that cost next to nothing. You may say why of course, how can a mere grad student afford The Slanted Door, The French Laundry, or our local Chez Panisse et al. Now although my salary certainly factors in my grocery list, the truth is I’ve lost interest in the uptown food scene. It dazzles like fireworks, and also like fireworks, it doesn’t stay. The mixing and matching of the freshest and strangest ingredients has blended so many nationalities into one that it loses culture like a smoothie losing texture. Those fancinesses don’t have a home. Meanwhile, I can spend days googling an obscure street snack and still regret that I haven’t spent more time, because I know that someone somewhere out there has an interesting story surrounding its identity that I haven’t heard. With such food there’s more than what goes into the pot that I can mention. For example, a simple sticky rice treat has made its way into an idiom, no less.
For twenty five years I’ve heard and used the expression “bánh ít trao đi, bánh quy trao lại” (“give bánh ít, get bánh quy” or “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”) in a million occasions, but not once did I know what bánh quy was. At home we call cookies bánh bích-quy (biscuit) and some shorten it to bánh quy, but the biscuit and the bánh ít are too different from each other to be consider equivalents, and it’s reasonable to guess that the idiom came about before the introduction of Western food into Vietnam. So confused I was. Then one day while foraging the pile of snacks at Alpha Bakery, I almost flipped backward as I found a package of three green mochi’s labeled “bánh quy“.
They’re round and flat at the bottom, each placed on a small cut of banana leaf, purposefully shaped like a turtle shell resting on wet grass. If you look closely you can even see some faint crevices near the rim. So there, mystery unveiled: “quy” means “turtle” in Han-Viet, and the banh gets its name from its look.
Content-wise, bánh quy is indeed just a smaller, rounder, flatter version of bánh ít: sticky rice, tapioca starch, salt, sugar, oil, and a sweet filling. Back in the day, the turtles had either a red or a yellow dot to distinguish between coconut and mung bean paste, but it seems these days only the coconut turtles are still around. Each banh is just big enough and tall enough to fit snuggly in a baby’s palm. Two or three adult bites and you suddenly wonder, hey, where did my sugary, chewy soft bun go?
Address: Alpha Bakery & Deli (inside Hong Kong City Mall)
11209 Bellaire Blvd # C-02
Houston, TX 77072-2548