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Exploring the Delightful World of Banh Cuon: Vietnam's Steamed Rice Rolls


When it comes to describing banh cuon (bánh cuốn – Vietnamese steamed rice rolls), three words come to mind: light, tasty, and filling. This delightful dish is not just a mere breakfast option; it's a gateway to understanding the rich tapestry of Vietnamese cuisine. Join us as we unravel the story behind these delicate rolls that have captured the hearts and taste buds of many.

Banh Cuon: A Complete Guide to Vietnamese Steamed Rice Rolls

The Origin of Banh Cuon

Banh cuon is said to trace its roots to the charming village of Thanh Tri, nestled along the banks of the Red River in Hanoi. Legend has it that during the reign of Hung King, the people of this land began cultivating wet rice, the lifeblood of Vietnamese agriculture. Hung King, the rice patron, was crowned due to his creation of rice square and round cakes, known as banh chung and banh day, respectively. These rice grains were revered as the "Pearls of Heaven." One of Hung King's sons, An Quoc, introduced the art of crafting thin, transparent sheets of steamed rice, celebrating both the rice's versatility and the ingenuity of his people.

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In the past, banh cuon was a privilege, reserved for special occasions and celebrations. However, as rice cultivation expanded, it became accessible to every corner of Hanoi. Today, Thanh Tri village stands as an ancient artisan hub for banh cuon, where generations have honed their skills and adapted this traditional dish to various regions, resulting in a diverse array of banh cuon varieties across the country.

Types of Banh Cuon

Before we delve into the diverse flavors of banh cuon, it's essential to distinguish between banh cuon and banh uot, commonly referred to as "wet cakes." While the name might be a tad misleading (they're moist and super soft rather than wet), banh cuon and banh uot are closely related. Banh uot is essentially banh cuon without fillings, sharing the same ingredients and cooking techniques.

Given Vietnam's vast geographical diversity, it's no surprise that banh cuon exhibits numerous regional variations. Small changes in fillings, dipping sauces, or toppings can create entirely new banh cuon experiences.

Banh cuon Thanh Tri (Hanoi)

Thanh Tri, the birthplace of steamed rice rolls, has its unique techniques that set its banh cuon apart. The process begins with the selection of high-quality rice grains, which are soaked for hours before being ground traditionally using a stone grinder. This traditional method preserves the natural rice aroma and imparts a glossy finish to the sheets after steaming. What truly sets banh cuon Thanh Tri apart is its super-thin rice sheets, a testament to the skill and experience of the chefs.

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Banh cuon Thanh Tri

However, the star of banh cuon Thanh Tri is its dipping sauce, crafted from ca cuong (Lethocerus indicus), a type of water bug consumed widely in Southeast Asia. These bugs possess essential oil used both defensively and nutritionally. Ca cuong oil boasts a pleasant cinnamon aroma and a slight tang. While natural ca cuong oil is rare due to declining insect populations, artificial alternatives are used, though reserved for privileged customers.

Across northern Vietnam, you'll find intriguing banh cuon varieties:

  • In Ha Nam, the southern gateway of Hanoi, banh cuon is enjoyed cold with chargrilled pork and a warm dipping sauce.
  • In Quang Ninh, home to the world-famous Ha Long Bay, banh cuon is paired with fried squid cakes, a local specialty.
  • In Thanh Hoa, at the northern tip of Central Vietnam, banh cuon is sometimes meatless, served with eel congee.
  • In Nghe An, President Ho Chi Minh's hometown, you'll find banh cuon paired with boiled pork organs or eel soup.
  • In Ha Tinh, neighboring Nghe An, steamed rice rolls are savored with corn egg rolls, a delightful combination of soft rice rolls and crispy egg rolls.

Banh Cuon in Central Cities

In the central region, banh cuon Quy Nhon stands out. Quy Nhon, a coastal city in Binh Dinh Province, offers a unique presentation, with rice rolls, toppings, and vegetables served separately. It's common to pair steamed rice sheets as a side dish with pork organ congee.

Banh Cuon in Southern Cities

Southern banh cuon reflects the region's cuisine through a medley of local ingredients in the fillings and rice wrappers. The dipping sauce is sweeter, and the batter is creamier.

Banh Cuon Saigon

In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), there's no fixed recipe for banh cuon. The city's fierce culinary competition has led to innovative recipes, including banh cuon trung (egg rice-rolled cakes). This variation offers two options: eggs can be mixed with the rice batter or wrapped inside the batter, remaining runny when cut into the rice wrappers.

Another unique twist is banh cuon la dua (pandan steamed rice-rolled cakes), featuring pandan extract for fragrance and vibrant color.

Banh Cuon Người Hoa (Chinese-Vietnamese Steamed Rice Rolls)

The Chinese-Vietnamese community has enriched Vietnam's culinary tapestry, especially in steamed rice rolls. Their batter often incorporates generous amounts of green onions, and the fillings exhibit a strong Chinese influence, featuring char siu or fresh shrimp, reminiscent of dim sum. Notably, these rolls are dipped in soy sauce instead of fish sauce.

In the world of banh cuon, even minor variations in fillings, dipping sauces, or toppings can result in an entirely new culinary experience.