A woman cooking bánh cuốn Thanh Trì at a tourism festival in Hanoi
Like bún, bánh cuốn is a gift from good rice. With its attractive and tempting appearance, the crepe-like roll catches the attention at first sight.
The white outer layer of bánh cuốn is transparent enough to hint at what makes up the mysterious filling, which is actually ground pork, minced mộc nhĩ (wood ear mushroom), spring onion and nấm hương, or shiitake mushrooms.
Bánh cuốn is mentioned in Technique du peuple Annamite by the French author Henri Oger. Of the 4,200 paintings and painted woodcuts in this sizeable tome produced in 1908 and 1909, one depicts a bánh cuốn vendor in traditional dress making her way around town with two baskets of steaming equipment and food at the ends of her shoulder pole.
It's still very popular in Vietnam, perhaps more than ever, and many a place has its own version, invariably called "bánh cuốn" followed by the name of the pertinent town, city or province.
To give a few examples, there is bánh cuốn Hà Nội, which has the normal filling but is served with cà cuống sauce (cà cuống - Lethocerus indicus - is an insect which provides special fragrant oil, enhancing the taste of the sauce), bánh cuốn Hải Dương, bánh cuốn Lạng Sơn and bánh cuốn Phỷ Lý. Then there's the quite different bánh cuốn Thanh Trì, with a filling of spring onion and mộc nhĩ but no pork. It is served with sweet and sour sauce.
With the rice sheets that form the wrapping of bánh cuốn, it's a case of the thinner, the better.
In the south, there is a similar dish named bánh ướt, the chief difference being the much thicker wrapping and therefore rice content. Some vendors batter and deep-fry their bánh ướt to balance the rice, a recipe preferred by many southerners. They also like it with young bean sprouts to release the heat, particularly in the sweltering city.
Bánh cuốn showcases the flexibility of the Vietnamese people. Its taste is simple, fresh with the fragrant herbs and sauce that the vendor gives generously, as much as the customer wants really.
Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like pork filling, some like the meat-free Thanh Tri style, and some like bánh cuốn with a steamed egg inside, the way they make it in Lang Son Province in the far north. Unsurprisingly, that version is called bánh cuốn Lạng Sơn.
A good bánh cuốn cook is skillful, quick and patient. Sometimes, when passing a traditional Vietnamese restaurant in Saigon, I think of a certain bánh cuốn vendor on the sidewalk of Phan Huy Chu Street, at the corner of Hang Chuoi Street. She's a quiet woman in her mid thirties who cycles into the center of Hanoi from the city's outskirts in the early morning of every day. She must get up in the small hours to prepare the food and cooking gear for the busy, tiring day ahead of her.
Concentration is the key to making bánh cuốn as the same actions must be repeated again and again. It's a busy job. First, the rice flour must be prepared. Then a spoonful of the wet batter is spread over a closely woven steaming basket and the resulting rice sheet taken outside with a tiny bamboo stick and left to cool and harden a little.
Next comes the filling of minced pork and two types of mushroom, and that requires plenty of cooking too. When the filling is ready, it is rolled in the thin rice sheet, which is then cut into shorter rolls. To these are added coriander, basil and fried spring onion to fortify the taste.
Bánh cuốn from a pavement vendor is cheap yet packed with flavor. Even in an expensive city like Hanoi, budget-constrained gourmands can treat themselves to the delicacy for VND7,000 to VND10,000. Even poor children and students can usually afford the meat-free bánh cuốn Thanh Trì with its mộc nhĩ, fried spring onion and fresh herbs.
With so many Vietnamese people living abroad, it's not surprising to find bánh cuốn, phở and other traditional dishes along the streets of foreign cities. When I was in Paris in 2008, I had the chance to taste bánh cuốn in the thirteenth arrondissement on the Left Bank of the Seine. In this area reminiscent of Saigon, I came across several Vietnamese restaurants packed with Westerners and Asians enjoying bánh cuốn and phở.
Good bánh cuốn restaurants can be found in Saigon, for example Bánh Cuốn Lá at 57 Nguyen Du Street in District 1, opposite Notre Dame Cathedral. It has a dozen versions of bánh cuốn on the menu, like bánh cuốn Thanh Trì, bánh cuốn Hà Nội, and bánh cuốn with pork pie or lạp xưởng.
It's a cozy little nook with only half a dozen tables, and on one wall are traditional ink drawings of a woman hawking her bánh cuốn in the streets. A serving of bánh cuốn Thanh Trì with pork pie costs around two dollars, while the other items on the menu are a bit pricier.
True, the restaurant is a tad stingy with the herbs, but the bánh cuốn itself is good.