Chinese turnip cake makes a Vietnamese turn

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  Bá»™t chiên Vietnamese version of Chinese turnip cake is fried on an iron-cast pan and high heat to achieve a desired texture: a crunchy outer layer and a soft inside/PHOTO: TAN NHAN

No one seems to know when bá»™t chiên debuted in Saigon, but several records say the dish was created by Chinese-Vietnamese people who lived in the Cho Lon (big market) neighborhood, Vietnam's largest Chinatown.

It appears that the dish is a modification of a radish or turnip cake a common dim sum (breakfast) dish of Chinese people in Guangdong Province.

However, instead of mixing shredded radish with rice flour to make the original cake, the residents of Cho Lon used just rice flour only. When the cake was ready, they cut it into smaller rectangular or square-shaped pieces, and added eggs and shredded spring onions while pan-frying them.

Another creative thing that the Cho Lon residents have done can be seen in the way bá»™t chiên is served. It is placed on a dish and covered with a generous amount of shredded raw papaya pickled in vinegar.

Finally, it is eaten with soya sauce mixed with sugar and vinegar.

During the 1980s, bá»™t chiên was very popular in Saigon, especially in District 3, where more than ten restaurants operated along Vo Van Tan Street. But, now, only a few of these are still in business.

A reason for the disappearance of many bá»™t chiên restaurants, according to some former sellers, is that while making the dish was a complicated process, it was priced less than other dishes much easier to cook, like cơm tấm (broken rice), phở, and hủ tiếu (noodle soup).

Indeed, to make the rice cake, one has to be particular about the quality of rice, and go through all the processes of grinding, stirring and steaming with exact timing.

Unlike other dishes that can be prepared and served almost immediately after customers order, bá»™t chiên cannot be cooked in advance. Its desired texture is a crunchy outer layer and a soft inside, meaning that it can't be cooked on fire for too long or too short.

So, the cook usually places a pile of uncooked bá»™t chiên pieces on his cast iron pan. Whenever a customer makes an order, he would take a portion of a dish and pour cooking oil on a corner of the pan and start frying cake pieces this is done with one hand, while the other fries shredded spring onions in another corner of the pan.

 BỘT CHIÊN PUSH CART

190 Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street, Ward 14, District 5

Open hours: 2 p.m.-1 a.m.

Price: VND25,000/plate

 BỘT CHIÊN ĐẠT THÀNH

277 Vo Van Tan Street, Ward 5, District 3

Open hours: 4 p.m.-10 p.m.

Price: VND18,000/plate

When the cake slices become crunchy, he breaks an egg and pours it over the slices. The egg acts like a kind of glue sticking to all the slices.

While many bá»™t chiên cooks find it tiring, foodies think it is fun and a special treat watching how their food is cooked. So, restaurants in Cho Lon, where people hear the sizzling sound when the cake is fried, and inhale the appetizing aroma of shredded spring onions being fried in pork grease, are a popular draw.

The place I frequent in the China Town for bá»™t chiên is not a restaurant but a push cart located opposite to the Cho Lon Post Office.

The bá»™t chiên sold there is probably the same as other places, but the push cart's location evokes nostalgia one can enjoy a view of Saigon's old buildings and streets as one partakes of this delicious snack that can turn out to be a full meal.

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