If you ask me which breakfast I would go for first when I visit Hanoi, bánh cuốn will always be my answer.
I remember, when I was little, my happiest days were the mornings when Dad called the bánh cuốn lady from the ground to come to our flat on level 4. (Yes, they would climb up all the stairs to serve you bánh cuốn!) The lady then gently pulled layers and layers of thin steamed rice crepes out of her bamboo basket, weighted them with a hanging metal scale then handed them to Dad. Dad would get some of the scrumptious pork terrines to serve with the silky soft bánh cuốn as well because he knew his little girl loved them with bánh cuốn just like him.
That bánh cuốn in my memory wasn't the hot steaming one that filled with minced meat and mushroom that you've seen in Melbourne or when you visit Vietnam. It has no fillings and is usually served cold with fried shallot and fish dipping sauce. It's not exciting as how hot bánh cuốn is served nowadays but the simplicity of it has taught me to appreciate the art of making the beautiful thin rice crepes.
The best bánh cuốn is from Thanh Tri, a small village in Hanoi. The villagers know the craft to make the silkiest and translucent rice crepes but at the same time strong enough that you can pick up with your chopsticks and bouncy enough in your mouth. To do so, they use the rice that stored for at least a year to eliminate some of the exceed starch. Then the rice will be soaked in water overnight and milled with the right amount of water to create the batter. On a thin cloth stretched over a pot of boiling water, the cook spreads a ladleful of batter, waits for it to be steamed and then coax it off with a long, flat bamboo stick. You see a translucent, steamy hot rice crepe, hanging beautifully on a stick just like a piece of silk flying in the spring breeze. I always feel amazed watching them taking the rice crepe out so fast and so beautiful. It's the skill that takes many years to perfect.
Freshly made steamed rice noodle sheet - very similar to how bánh cuốn made.
By now you probably know why I have to cheat to make bánh cuốn at home. It's not an easy task, even for an experienced cook. It's best to enjoy it at the restaurant. However, you've got to find a way to fix your craving for bánh cuốn while you are in quarantine! I luckily found my answer. Actually, I have two :)
One of my really good friend in Holand - Nga Nguyen Burger had invented an instant-bánh-cuốn method using the ordinary rice papers. The method went viral in the Vietnamese communities around the world that almost every housewife has to make it once. You can tell how much we love our bánh cuốn, don't you? Especially, in quarantine time I have to say.
So to make instant bánh cuốn, you firstly need to source the right rice papers. The bamboo brand is the one that many ladies swear by.
You then soak the rice papers, one by one, in a cold water bath mixed with a spoon of oil and vinegar. These stop the rice paper to stick together. The rice papers will soften after 2-5 minutes. Take a piece of rice paper out and spread in on a flat surface. Add a spoon of filling in the middle and fold the rice paper into small roll. The most common filling is sautéed pork mince and ear wood mushroom but we had quite lots of meat lately, so I made it with minced mushroom instead.
The instant bánh cuốn rolls can be steamed or microwave on high for 2 minutes and served. I have to admit I was very impressed with the result. The crepe had a good texture - smooth, soft and slippery. I also like how the translucent skin reveals the delicious filling, waiting for you to have a bite. The only minus point was it more starchy than it should be. However, it was much less effort and doable for any cook to make. And it satisfies your craving!
I also brought home some of the fresh pho noodle sheets after closing Rice Kitchen for a break. They have been laying on our fridge, urge me to do something yummy with them. The pho noodle sheets are also made by steaming rice batter. They're slightly thicker than the bánh cuốn crepe but they have a very similar texture. So, my plan is to cut them into smaller pieces to roll the filling in the middle and cook them again using the steamer. I suspect they would be softer and silkier than the rice paper ones.
I fry tofu and make vegan fish sauce dipping for the rolls. Hanoians used to eat fried tofu with their bánh cuốn. Back in the old days, meat and pork terrine was a luxury thing to have so they served tofu on the side, I guess. The crispy tofu to me compliments the smooth, slippery texture of bánh cuốn very well. I also love how the Hanoi vendors add prawn floss alongside with fried shallots on bánh cuốn. So I add the shiitake mushroom floss to my vegan version. The tiny savoury mushroom pieces add another layer of umami and texture to the dish, that you can’t help but dive back to it again and again.
My youngest boy doesn’t like mushrooms on it own so I make him one serve with pork and pork terrine. He loves it a lot. He prefers the pho noodle sheet version better though.
Oh, I forgot to mention about the herbs and sides Vietnamese people like to have with bánh cuốn. Northerners just serve fresh herbs, coriander and Vietnamese balm, particularly while Southerners would like to add chopped cucumber and poached bean sprouts. I guess the climate in the South is hotter so people like something more refreshing. I don’t mind either but I only found some baby herbs left in mums garden, the cold weather stunts them, so they would be our side today ;)
Vegan Banh Cuon
- 1 pack rice paper rolls
- OR 1kg fresh pho noodle sheets
- 500g mixed fresh mushroom
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 red Asian shallot, chopped
- 1 clove of garlic, chopped
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 300ml apple juice
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 100ml water
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
Toppings & sides:
- Shiitake floss
- Fried shallot
- Vietnamese balms
- Fresh chilli
- Fried tofu
- Bean sprouts, blanched (optional)
- Cucumber, cut into small strips (optional)
- Finely chop the mushroom.
- Heat oil in a pan. Fry chopped shallot and garlic until fragrant. Add mushroom, stir well. Season with soy sauce and pepper. I don't add sugar as I like the natural umami and sweetness of the mushroom but if you like, add a 1/2 teaspoon in. Keep frying the mushroom until the juice are dried up. Remove from the heat. Cool the filling down to roll.
- Prepare the rice paper rolls by soaking the rice papers, one by one, in a cold water bath mixed with a spoon of oil and vinegar. These stop the rice paper to stick together. The rice papers will soften after 2-5 minutes. Work in a batch of 5. If you using the fresh pho noodle sheets, cut them into 15cm x 18cm rectangles.
- Prepare a flat surface like a large plate or a cutting board. Place the rice paper/noodle sheet on the surface, add a heaping tablespoonful of the meat filling at the top of the sheet. Fold over the sides and then roll-up the sheet. Repeat these steps to make the remaining soaked rice papers/ fresh noodle sheets.
- In a small bowl, combine together the water, sugar, apple juice, salt, chopped garlic until the sugar is dissolved.
- Place the 6-8 rolls in a plate. Steam for 2 minutes. Top with the fried onion and shiitake floss on top.
- Serve with fried tofu, fresh chilli and fresh herbs.