Most of the English speaking world use that term to describe the edible wafer-thin papery sheets made of rice flour, water, and sometimes tapioca starch, and dried on cross-hatched straw to give it a distinctive weavy pattern. They are used to make Vietnamese summer rolls or deep fried for spring rolls.
But all my life, I’ve known it by its Vietnamese term: Báng Tráng. It’s one of the few Viet words I know – the others, of course, are also food related. Those are the words that I seem to retain the easiest. No matter the language.
“So where should we eat tonight?”
I love this question when traveling. There are so many new restaurants and street vendors to explore. In Vietnam, it wasn’t just the never-before-tried-foods that were exciting because even the familiar foods took on a whole new level of food exploration. I’m convinced that the food tastes better in Vietnam not only because everything is so fresh (bought daily from the early morning markets) but also because it’s served with the proper accompaniments – unlike in the U.S. or in Dubai when a lot of omission or substitutions have to be made.
“There is this place famous for its bánh tráng,” suggests my mom’s friend.
Sure, I thought. I like bánh tráng, I’ll go along for the ride.
(And ride I did! A very nerve-wracking first time on the back of a Motorcycle, nervously pressing my lips together, tightly gripping the driver’s waist to the point of possibly cutting off her breathing and circulation, even at speeds of only 20km/hr, feeling very vulnerable without the protection of airbags and seat belts, constantly wondering if my helmet would offer any protection from a crash every time we navigated a ridiculously large round-a-bout with traffic rules I didn’t understand or weaved in and out of traffic.)
When we arrived at the restaurant (safe and sound but it took a while to peel my lips apart), we chose a table outside on the sidewalk and as we settled into the stools, my mom and her friends began to discuss what to order.
The restaurant seemed to operate out of two seating areas separated by about 20 feet of space so the wait staff shuttled food back and forth between the two store fronts.
We ordered the specialty of the place and when the báng tráng arrived, it was very different from what I expected. First it was folded in quarters and second it needed no re-hydration at all. The báng tráng we use from the U.S. are dry sheets of rice paper and need to be reconstituted in warm water then used right away or else it turns to mush.
Third, it did not have the characteristic cross-hatch pattern.
They remind me of defrosted spring roll pastry in their ultra thinness and springy texture. But these báng tráng did not need to be deep-fried as they would be eaten raw.
At this restaurant, there seemed to be only two meat fillings to choose from – both of the pork variety. My mom tried to explain to me that one cut is from the upper leg and the other is the lower leg, possibly the shank. We chose the mixed platter. Then you can choose the size of the platter – for 1, 2, or 3 persons.
The thinly sliced pork for the báng tráng filling came with these accompaniments: thinly sliced pickled daikon (white radish) and carrot, pickled pearl onions, mung bean sprouts and this amazing basket of fresh herbs.
I recognized some from my mom’s herb garden and others were completely new to me. My favorite that night were the young mango leaves. Tender and lemony, they added a subtle tang to my báng tráng rolls.
I followed my mom’s lead on assembling these báng tráng rolls (using our hand as a plate) first the lettuce, then fresh herbs and pickle, and then the meat.
Finally it is rolled tightly, a tad haphazardly as I had to do it in mid-air, and ready to be dipped into the all-important Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam cham), which provides the “dressing” for this rolled up salad.
I enjoy making and eating báng tráng rolls because I can personalize the fillings to my own liking. The flavors of the pork mixed with crunchy fresh herbs and tangy pickles makes for a great combination.
For drinks, I noticed that Schweppes soda water served over lots of sugar and ice seemed to be a popular drink in Vietnam. Sure enough, my mom’s friend ordered a few glasses for the table but it was too sweet for my taste.
It seemed that no meal in Vietnam was complete (at least for us) without a bowl of noodle soup so we ordered a few bowls of the restaurants name sake Bánh Canh Trang Bàng. My mom explained to me that “Bánh Canh” is the name of the soup and “Trang Bang” is a province in southeastern Vietnam. The restaurant’s name also includes “Út Dung” which could be the owner’s name.
The rice noodles used in the soup were round and about 1/4-inch thickness. The broth was made with a pork stock and served with pig feet and fresh herbs. I tend to eat just the meat off the pig’s feet and discard the skin since the texture and flavor of boiled pig skin in this form never appealed to me.
Slurping down the noodles and soup in between making báng tráng rolls, I wondered if I would ever learn the background and secret of how these rice paper wrappers were made or if I would ever experience eating them again outside of Vietnam.
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Bánh Canh Trang Bàng Út Dung restaurant: 441 Nguyen Tri Phoung, Phoung 8, District 10, Saigon.
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