When Goa Girl posted that she missed the banh cuon from the late lamented Northern Vietnamese restaurant Truong Thranh, I thought it was time to revisit Thanh Xuan, a Kingsway hole-in-the-wall that I knew specializes in this Vietnamese delicacy. I blogged about this place around the time I first encountered it, and I haven’t really been back for quite some time, so I finally found an excuse to return.
Banh cuon, a simple steamed rice flour crepe, is a common breakfast dish originating from Northern Vietnam. Like most of Vietnam’s indigenous food, however, banh cuon’s true origins are in Southern China – specifically from the familiar cheong fun, the rice roll you will find in all dim sum menus. The methods of preparation are quite similar – rice starch batter (often augmented with wheat, tapioca or other starches) is steamed to form a thin sheet over boiling water. While cheong fun is steamed in shallow metal trays, bank cuon is steamed in a specially constructed pot which has a fine cloth tautly stretched over the opening.
Here at Thanh Xuan, instead of using a manufactured bank cuon pot, they jerry rigged their own steamers by stretching some fine mesh cotton-nylon fabric with a steel hose clamp over two noodle pots. A hole is punctured near the perimeter of the cloth to let some steam emit up into the domed lids.
To make the banh cuon, a glutinous rice flour and tapioca flour batter is poured and spread thinly on the cloth then the lid is placed over it. After about 30 seconds to a minute of steaming, the lid is lifted and the resultant crepe is lifted deftly with a bamboo stick onto an oiled tray where it is filled with a ground pork, shrimp, and wood ear mushroom mixture.
A single order comprises six filled crepes and the banh cuon maker works the two pots simultaneously to make quick work of it. It is harder than it looks as it requires skill and experience to be able to handle such a diaphanous crepe without tearing and making a mess of it.
Banh cuon is traditionally served with a nuoc cham dip, sliced cha lua (Vietnamese pork roll), crisp fried shallots, and a simple lettuce and herb salad. In Vietnam, you will find premium renditions of banh cuon flavoured with the extract of a water insect called ca cuong. As a parting gift, here is Underbelly NYC’s Baron Ambrosia’s take on ca cuong.