There’s a funny folk tale about a little boy who wanted to learn to be a miser. He was eventually introduced to a teacher who had any students. The teacher studied the boy from head to toe, then told him to return the next day with only a rice pancake, or banh trang, as an initiation gift.
The next morning the boy returned carrying a rice pancake and a rooster. The teacher told the child to keep the bird and the boy replied that the rooster wasn’t a gift. He had brought it along just in case some grains of rice fell from the rice pancake when the teacher accepted it. They way, no speck of rice would be wasted.
Upon hearing this the teacher sighed and said that the boy need not return after all, since he was already more miserly than the teacher and had nothing more to learn.
Central to this tale is the rice pancake, a cheap and familiar food throughout Vietnam’s countryside. In the South, there are many varieties that are used in different ways. They can be eaten with sweet or savory foods such as blood pudding, noodles, soup, duck eggs, and minced pork. These rice pancakes are popular for breakfast, as mid – morning and late – night snacks, at ancestor ceremonies, and during the New Year.
People in the delta town of Ben Tre are very proud of their rice pancakes, which are called banh trang My Long. Typically offered at Tet, these pancakes come in three varieties: with coconut; milk; and milk, eggs and coconut.
The best coconut pancakes (banh trang dua) feature rice from Tra Vinh and coconut milk from Ben Tre. They are spongy, moist and taste of coconut. The smell of these cakes being grilled over a fire is hard to resist.
Plain rice pancakes (banh trang) are made of rice flour that is soaked overnight. After being finely ground and stored for some time in a terra cotta pot, the rice paste is poured and cooked. In the past, these cakes were made using a terra cotta pot full of water that was covered with two layers of linen. The pot was placed on the fire. When the water boiled, the cook used a dipper made from a coconut shell to pour rice batter over the cloth and steam it.
A thick layer of rice batter is used to make banh trang. A thin layer of rice batter is used to make rice paper rolls. Even thinner payers are used to make the wrappers for spring rolls.
When the pancake is done, the cook uses a bamboo stick to pick it up, and then dries it on a bamboo rack. When one side is dry, the pancakes are flipped over. They are usually arranged in ten layers.
Beside roasted rice, sesame seeds are an important ingredient in another tasty rice pancake, banh trang me.
A popular poem states:
“I go far away and miss the sesame rice cakes
The rural scent floating in the air”
While meals made with rice paper rolls tens to be quite complex in the North, settlers in the South created new, and simpler versions. They used fresh – picked vegetables and herbs from their gardens and caught fish in nearby ponds and steams. The fish were grilled, often without seasoning.
Before rolling, the rice cakes are wet. It there is no filling, they can be eaten plain dipped in fish sauce. All sorts of fillings may be added. Common ingredients include meat, fish, rice vermicelli, herbs, and mustards green bananas. After being tightly rolled in rice paper, the rolls are dipped in a sauce, sugar, chili and garlic.
A saying from northern Vietnam compares husband and wife to two types of rice pancakes, a banh da (dry pancake) and a banh da (rice flan).
A popular southern verse states:
“I wish to take a crispy rice cake
I wish to love a girl who will always keep her word”
If you visit southern Vietnam, be used to try local delicacies like roasted paddy fields in salt, sour fish soup and bun mam noodles. Last but not least, sample some rice pancakes. This humble dish has inspired so many poets and singers, like the anonymous composer of this folk song, which is sung when rowing when rowing on the delta’s myriad waterways:
“Yo – heave ho…
Pray for the matchmaker and for a party of rice cakes
Pray for the matchmaker and for a cat of sugar
We make a commitment to love
Even in poor conditions, we still agree …”