The mystery of the bánh cuốn

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A bánh cuốn trứng technician at Xuan Huong Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City preparing for her magical flip

Some mysteries never get solved.

Indeed, I spent most of 2012 trying to figure out who had the first idea of throwing an egg into bánh cuốn"”the thin, crepe-like rolls typically stuffed with a hash made of pork and cat ear mushroom.

And now I've given up. I'm satisfied only to call it the perfect brunch.

My search began at Bánh cuốn Xuân Hường, a fantastic, tomb-like cafeteria out by the airport that does nothing but bang out superior wraps. A large tin table dining room is fronted by a row of steamers and two tough ladies armed with long wooden sticks.

They used these batons not to beat, but to conjure their impossibly thin bánh cuốn, which they piled with fried shallots, a handful of perilla, cilantro and mint.

This culinary magic trick is heightened with the addition of an egg.

The egg at Xuan Huong is not so much thrown into the mix as it is gingerly steamed on the muslin used to make the nearly transparent rolls. With a careful flick of the wand, they manage to fold an over-easy yolk into the roll without breaking it. When you pierce it with a fork, the yolk bursts into the pork, shrimp and mushroom filling like a butter bomb.

It may prove to be the best possible brunch and I ate four in a single sitting"”Cool Hand Luke-style.

Overseeing the crew of talented crepesters is a rather severe woman with tattooed eyebrows who said yes to everything.

Had she invented the bánh cuốn with an egg in it?

"Yes," she said, seemingly exhausted by the question. "Just write that."

Sadly, I cannot.

Most people know the dish as bánh cuốn Lang Son, a reputation that is happily owned by the official website of Lang Son Province. How the dish came to be associated with Lang Son, or where it exactly originated, the provincial website did not say.

Instead, it reiterated a five year-old travel piece, which presented bánh cuốn Lang Son as the favorite breakfast of the same folks who have served as the front line against the Chinese hordes for roughly 2,000 years.


The bánh cuốn trứng at Xuan Huong is worth the drive out to the airport

It is hardly surprising, given the history, that Lang Son's namesake dish is the Vietnamese equivalent of a Lumberjack Breakfast: an egg in steamed rice dough and dressed with pork floss drowned in caramelized fat.

"You cannot pick up a bánh cuốn Lang Son with chopsticks, or dip it in the sauce; instead, you must pour the sauce onto the bánh cuốn and carefully spoon out the egg yolk," wrote the anonymous author of a roundup of the provincial fare entitled Món ngon Xứ Lạng (The delicious foods of Lang land).

Here in Ho Chi Minh City, the dish (known only as bánh cuốn trứng) has evolved into a light, zesty day-starter dressed in refreshing greens, bean sprouts and a spicy fish sauce"”a tropical hangover cure, if you will.

At Nam Hai, a famed bánh cuốn dispensary in District 1, the egg combo must be ordered off the menu. On a recent Sunday, the yolk arrived broken and cooked clinging to a square mass of peppery chopped meat and miniature shrimp.

The wad was served with a platter of dreary meat pie"”not exactly what the doctor ordered.

BÁNH CUỐN XUÂN HƯỜNG

Address: 1 Song Da Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City

Price: VND35,000 per bánh cuốn trứng

Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m.

Phone: (08) 6 293 9820


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My pursuit of the original provincial dish turned up a string of dead ends. Vietnam scholars from Paris to San Francisco turned up their hands at inquiries about how the dish got its name.

Indeed, the dish remains a chimera. Some doubt it exists at all.

In Hanoi, one veteran bánh cuốn slinger insisted that the egg addition couldn't have originated anywhere outside the village of Thanh Tri (which has since been incorporated into the capital).

"[The egg idea] isn't from Lang Son," said An, a daughter of Thanh Tri and the owner of Bánh cuốn Gia Truyền"”an Old Quarter institution for three decades and counting. "My family has been making bánh cuốn with an egg in it for generations."

"If you want," she added as though proving her point. "I'll make you one right now."  

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