Sandwich shop goodies 7 – Bắp hầm (Vietnamese whole kernel grits)

    Corn must be my favorite grain. Growing up with very limited access to street food, I used to fix my eyes on the corn carts and baskets of market women near home, secretly drooling. They had a big steamer packed with corn ears still wrapped in their wilted yellow husks and brown silk, sometimes a glass shelf with peeled ones, white and shiny and plump. I was always so happy when Dad bought xôi bắp, sweet corn and sticky rice, for breakfast. Then at night there was corn-on-the-cobs grilled by coal fire and smothered with lard and green onions. It’s better than butter, no doubt. At che stalls there was corn pudding with coconut milk, which I like when it’s warm and gooey. And that was all the Vietnamese corn stuff I knew.

    Not until recently that I came across another corn thing, a midfielder between chè bắp (corn pudding) and xôi bắp, and porridge too. I hate porridge, but I love this stuff.

    Some people just call it “bắp nấu”, “cooked corn”, either to make sure that we know we’re not eating raw ones or to confuse questioners with the boiled whole ears, also known as bắp nấu. The more careful gourmands label it “bắp hầm“, literally “simmered corn”, since the hulled kernels are slow cooked until saturated with water and soft like a canned sweet pea. But it’s not mush, the corn still retains a tiny bit of chewiness that entertains the gums.

    The classic vendor look is a ladle of hot white bubbly goo half wrapped in banana leaf, a few spoons of SSS (sugar-salt-sesame) mix huskily dumped on top, a tuft of coconut shreds on top of all, and a finger-long piece of banana leaf stem to scoop.

    The sandwich store look has the SSS mix and coconut in tiny Ziploc pouches, a half pound of corn in banana leaves, all cling wrapped on a styrofoam plate and sent home with a plastic spoon.  It’s sleek alright.

    Makes awesome meals on vegetarian days!

    The white easy package sells for two bucks at Huong Lan Sandwich #4 in Milpitas (41 Serra Way, Suite 108, CA 95035). My guess would be 2000VND (~11 cents) if you buy it in Vietnam, anyone knows?

    Previously on Sandwich Shop Goodies: bánh dừa (coconut sticky rice stick)
    Next on Sandwich Shop Goodies: bánh bao chỉ (loh mai chi – Chinese sticky rice flour ball with sweet fillings)

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    20 comments to Sandwich shop goodies 7 – Bắp hầm (Vietnamese whole kernel grits)

    • I haven’t seen those yet! Maybe I have, but there’s so many things wrapped in banana leaves it’s hard to tell. Crazy inflation these days, might have to fork over 4.000 VND. I’m with you on the pork fat scallions..the perfect sauce- especially when they throw in some crunchy pork bits.

    • Mai

      Wow, that’s some crazy inflation indeed! But even back then I didn’t see that many stalls with bap ham around. Those old country things are dying away because of western foods like muffin and fro-yo I think. Maybe they still have it in the countryside, but I’m not sure about Saigon.
      Oh, and have you had steamed banh mi with pork fat scallions? I’m addicted.

    • bánh mì hầp hả??? NO I haven’t seen that. Put that one on the list. Seems like every day I see another donut shop or pizza place pop up. The food culture is slooowly a bad way. It must be preserved!! The Vietnamese want A/C and comfort now. In 10 years will we still see those masterful bánh bò dừa sellers toasting their cakes in tin cans over charcoal?!?

    • Mai

      yep, bánh mì hấp. You can make it at home. And I haven’t seen bánh bò dừa toasted in tin cans over charcoal!!! Gosh I missed out so much on Saigon street food. Kids these days probably don’t even know about stuff wrapped in banana leaves anymore. Maybe in 10 years those things will only show up at tourist attractions and in Rex’s buffets, not even half as good as the peddlers’. :-/

    • I always try to pick up one banana leaf goodie when I’m in a Vietnamese bakery, but I had no idea they could contain something like this. I’ll be on the lookout for it the next time I’m in the right place at the right time…

    • Mai

      Yeah, the right time is key. I haven’t seen this thing again since I last bought it. I fear that it’s near extinction, probably because it’s too simple to attract the eyes.

    • Nga

      A comment about the translation name for this dish… Grits is not whole kernel, it is coarsely grounded corn. Using ‘grits’ can be misleading since this dish is not of fine texture as it is with grits. The type of corn used in this recipe is actually known as hominy, white maize/corn kernels.

      This dish is not grounded down but simmered in whole kernels. Therefore, a more suitable translation of this sweet dish would be: Vietnamese Simmered (hầm) Hominy (bắp).

    • Mai

      Thank you for the suggestion, Nga. I chose to call it grits because the method of cooking, the regional availability, the abundance, and therefore cheapness are similar to that of grits, and I added “whole kernel” to specify that this is not the usual grits. I guess in my translation I don’t want to just translate the literal meaning, but also try to convey some sense of the dish’s cultural essence.

    • Nga

      Hi Mai, by your explanations, using the word grits is still misleading.

      Grits is white or yellow corn that is grounded down. Similar to whole peppercorn that is grounded to black pepper. The correct name for this type of large white corn as a whole kernel is “hominy”. Hominy is not only abundant in Việt Nam but is also grown and in abundant here in the US and Mexico. It is readily available all over US food markets in dried packages and in cans. If you use hominy, the English spoken readers will know exactly what you’re talking about.

      As for the cooking method, grits do not need to be soaked and only take a few minutes to cook. Whereas, hominy needs to be soaked and it takes much longer to simmer it down.

      Hope these explanations help you to understand a bit more.

    • Nga

      Let me add something, Hominy is basically grown wherever corn can be grown. Hominy was introduced here in the U.S. by the Native Americans.

    • Mai

      Hi Nga, I guess I should explain myself better so that you understand me a bit more. Hominy is basically corn without hull and germ, as far as Google searches show. If you ground it, you get grits. Now, why do I choose to say “whole kernel grits” instead of “hominy”? Because I’ve yet to see hominy in any American meal (and I live in the South), and of the few people I’ve met who had had hominy, they ate it straight out of the can, which is nothing like bap ham at all. So between hominy and grits, grits is more popular to American and that’s why I link it to bap ham, which is popular to Vietnamese (at least the people of my generation and older). That’s what I mean by “regional availability” (which I should rephrase as “regional popularity” perhaps?).

      Secondly, by “method of cooking” I meant you want to make a mushy almost porridge like thing, if I use “simmered hominy”, it’s not clear (as least to me) how soft the kernel gets.

      At the end, it’s all just corn. 🙂

    • Nga

      I think the explanations and discussions between us are enough for readers to know what this dish is all about.

      I, too, live in the south, I, too, am not young. Yet, this can go on forever… so, here’s my last post.

      In general, Goya dried hominy can be used for this dish and yes, it is sold in American groceries in white and yellow corn. If there’s no need to buy it, why they’re carrying them? Perhaps, you haven’t seen Americans using them. However, there are a whole list of recipes on the internet. Here’s a link of the popular,1-0,hominy,FF.html


      Incidentally, there’s an American dish very similar to this Vietnamese dish with variation of seasonings used, Hominy Pudding.

    • Mai

      Hmm, this is my first time hearing of hominy pudding (canjica), but I’ll look for it. 🙂 I just saw the recipe online, have you had it at a restaurant? Any recommendations?

    • Interesting!

      I tend to agree with Nga, that the proper term is Hominy (Mexican: Nixtamal).

      Do you know that Southeast Asia share this same recipe with minor differences?
      Philippines – it’s commonly known as binatóg or buálaw, less mushy and without sesame seeds
      Malaysia/Indonesia – Grontol jagung (similar to Philippine binatóg)

      I’m pretty sure this was something we (Philippines, at least) got from the Manila-Acapulco trade when we first got maize from Mexico.

    • Mai

      Thanks GOwin 🙂 Again, my translation was based on my preference and interpretation of the dish, it’s not a literal translation. Anyway, I didn’t know about the variations in the Phillipines and Malaysia/Indonesia, I would love to try them some day! 🙂

    • GIna

      I just bought these with NO knowledge of what it was but knowing that 1) i love corn 2) i love grits 3) i love xoi bap. This stuff is my new favorite – do you know what kind of corn they use!?

    • That’s awesome, Gina! I love this stuff too. I don’t know what kind of corn exactly, but it’s hominy, and considering the common types of corn in Vietnam, I’d say this was from the white corn, it’s stockier and much starchier than yellow sweet corn in America.

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