Does this happen to you often? You give a friend something to taste, he says “It’s good. What’s it called?”. You’re stumped. The English translation is easy, but it would make no sense because the name matches neither the food, the ingredients, nor the method of cooking.
It happens to me quite often, and usually I shut off the questions with “Just eat it!”. But I wonder, too. Southern Vietnamese folks have a niche for obscure naming scheme. The names could have sprouted from some jokes, some overly simplified impromptu description they thought of at the moment, some mispronounced foreign names, who knows. The result is intelligible and untranslatable, like bánh khọt, bánh tét, chả đùm. The translatable-but-not-always-understandable cases happen when they attach random verbs after the categorical nouns to make a new name, like bánh xèo – “sizzling banh”, bánh lọt – “falling-through banh”, bò né – “dodging beef”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Bánh bò belongs to this flock. Cow bánh? Unlikely, the thing is vegan to an n. I even thought about the possibility that the name is derived from its resemblance of the cow’s tripe, but they would have called it tripe bánh then. Crawling bánh? Less unlikely, more bizarre. Turns out some grandma saw the rising dough attempt to crawl over and out of the mixing bowl and thought “Gotcha! I shall name you the Crawling Banh”. Vietnamese food is so alive.
Technically the Mekong delta cooks got this recipe from Chinese immigrants and twitched things around a little. They call it “bak tong goh” (white sugar cake) in China. So plain. Bak tong go almost always gets sold with bánh tiêu: you tear open the hollow doughnut, insert bak tong go into the cavity, and get a fried-steamed-fried triple layer galore. I’m not too entranced by this “white sugar cake” because of its sour hints, which come from fermenting the batter with syrup. The Vietnamese rendition of bak tong goh, bánh bò, does not let the batter go sour, and is thus a charm.
They shape like mini muffins, and look like fluff balls, so we call them bánh bò bông – “fluffy bánh bò”. The porous inside structure is compared with honeycombs or bamboo roots, or even crystals if you let your imagination go far enough. They’re either green or white with a coconuty sweetness, to pair with the burnt savory taste of toasted sesame, sugar and salt mix that comes sprinkling on top. They’re bouncy and chewy, and extremely light. We used to get the morning fresh batches from Ngọc Sáng bakery, 199 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, Saigon.
Now we settle for the plastic-packaged $2.50-worth bunch from Kim’s Sandwiches, 1816 Tully Rd #182, San Jose, CA. Certainly not half as good as the fresh ones, but it’ll do.
Hoang Tam at Playing With My Food has a nice simple recipe of bánh bò.