Rice done right

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Tay Ninh Province is approximately 90 kilometers to the northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.

The area remains a popular tourist destination thanks to its lush forests and serene pagodas. But, for most foodies, Tay Ninh's major draw is its local delicacies. Between banh trang phoi suong Trang Bang (Trang Bang dew-wetted rice paper) and banh canh (a thick Vietnamese noodle made from a mixture of rice and tapioca flour), the province is worth the visit.

Banh trang phoi suong Trang Bang

Rice paper is everywhere in HCMC. It typically appears at the table in piles of store-bought rounds and eats with the consistency of a raincoat.

To offset this, some moisten the sheets with water and fill them with tasty bits of meat and fresh herbs.

Trang Bang District's "dew-wetted rice paper," however, is the result of a painstaking, seven-step process.

The special ingredient is the rice itself. Tay Ninh varietals are known for their delicate fragrance and the trick to making good paper is remaining true to the grain's original flavor.

When cooks want to make the rice paper, the grains are soaked for two to three hours.

The wet grains are then mixed with a little salt and ground into a sort of paste.

The processed mush is then spread in two thin layers on a cloth that is hung over a cauldron full of boiling water. The mixture is then spread out over a bamboo grid and left to dry in the sun.

The resulting paper is grilled over a fire of peanut shells. The cooks use a shallow pan to cook the double-layered paper and sniff the resulting smoke to ensure the fragrance is not lost.

HCMC LOCATIONS:

Hoang Ty Restaurant
850 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street, Binh Thanh District
Tel: (08) 3 899 8820
691 B Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street, Binh Thanh District
(08) 3 898 8789
106 Cao Thang Street, District 3
Tel: (08) 3 833 2077

Banh canh Trang Bang
441 Nguyen Tri Phuong Street, District 5
Tel: (08) 3 856 1268
180 Ly Thai To Street, District 3
Tel: (08) 3 832 2532

The paper is then left out overnight, to be moistened by the evening dew. Ideally, these famed rice paper makers will yield a wrap that is, at once, soft, tender and springy. Most importantly, the final product should still bear the smell of the original rice plant.

Pork is also a crucial ingredient in the dish, therefore, it must be chosen carefully. Tay Ninh favors lean cuts from the rump which is selected for its thin skin.

The meat is then paired with locally-grown fresh herbs like basil, peppermint, and chives. Locals from the district are known to throw in thin slices of mango bud and perilla. Add some strips of pickled carrot and Daikon and you're almost there. But this roll is nothing without the nation's famed sweet and sour dipping sauce - comprised of fish sauce, sugar, garlic, lime and chili.

It costs around VND90,000 for a portion which easily feeds two.

Banh canh Trang Bang

Another Tay Ninh favorite is the famed banh canh Trang Bang (thick noodle soup with pork hock). The dish is comprised of a bowl of delicious bone broth filled with springy noodles, and spiced fish sauce.

A fatty and chewy smoked ham hock is plopped down in the center of the dish, which can intimidate some foreign eaters.

Ham hocks in the New World are typically smoked, stewed and discarded. But here in Vietnam, they are chewed gnawed and sucked clean of marrow.

Thick skinned, and chock full of tasty tendons, the hock should be tacked with a combination of spoon and pork chops. Just eat it! You won't be sorry.

Thanks to a little help from the tapioca flour, the chewy banh canh noodles will have absorbed a good deal of that divine swine flavor.

A bowl of banh canh costs between VND27,00040,000 depending on where you're dining.

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