From a city whose residents live outdoors has emerged a rich tradition of street food that recall the traditions of Hanoi cuisine. Hanoians are convinced that they take more care with their food, while southerners are seen as more free and easy in their dining habits. Today there is also a widening gap in the type of food preferred by the older generation and the young. Young people are much more casual about what they eat, and the economic changes of the past decades have made people less fussy about food, with many eating fast food rather than going to the market and then preparing a meal.
There are hundreds of types of food found everywhere in the capital, in tiny eateries or in the bamboo baskets of street vendors, the best of which, The Guide believes, are found on the footpaths of the Old Quarter.
Traditional northern Vietnamese cakes (banh) are made seasonally, with ingredients such as green bean, sticky rice, sugar, water chestnuts, lotus seeds and peanuts. Many are wrapped in dried or fresh banana leaves, encasing a sweet inner surprise. The cakes appear at special parties and traditional functions, such as Tet holiday or an hoi ceremonies (similar to an engagement party). Fitting just about every budget, they cost from as little as VND5,000 to no more than VND30,000.
Banh com. Photo: Viet Tuan
Banh com has a distinct flavour and fragrance made from young rice, called com. Com is made from young glutinous rice, when the rice begins to ripen and still contains milk and fragrance. First, the rice is selected, thrashed, sieved and washed in large washers to eliminate the thin grains that float to the surface. At this stage it turns yellow from the original green colour. To produce a type of soft com the rice must be pounded before the most important stage of drying in a large iron pan over a wood fire. Pounding and drying techniques are often kept within the household and never passed on to daughters, as once married they are likely to live with their husband’s parents. Expert cooks know how long the pounding and drying should take, the frequency of each pounding, how the heat of the fire should be adjusted, and the techniques of choosing good rice and good firewood.
The finished product, which must be soft, sweet and fragrant, then finds its way to customers, covered with lotus leaves to retain its moisture and to give the com the fragrance of the leaf. It costs VND5,000 and the best is found in Banh Com Nguyen Ninh or Nguyen Ninh Sticky Rice Custard at 1 Hang Than street.
Autumn is the time for young rice. All Hanoians have a special place in their hearts for the smell and taste of green rice, a favourite dessert of the capital. During the season, women from Lang Vong or Tran Thai Tong streets in Cau Giay district can be seen all over Hanoi carrying baskets of green rice through the streets. There are few things more delicious than a simple dish of green rice in a lotus leaf with bananas, but it is also used in other popular desserts such as che com (green rice custard).
The recipe for Banh Troi, or ‘marble cake’, sounds quite simple but it is not so easy to make properly. One should be able to feel the freshness of well-done dough and smell the charming fragrance of its sugar filling. Rice flour and sugar fillings are the main ingredients. First the flour is mixed with water. The amount of water is important, otherwise the dough becomes too glutinous or too dry.
Then, pieces of the cake are rounded with sugar inside and boiled. The fragrance will indicate when they are ready, and when the marble-pattern creations float to the surface they are placed on plates. Hanoi’s young people opt for another choice in winter to avoid the evening chill: going to a popular shop in the centre of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, at 30 Hang Giay. None seem to mind sitting cramped on baby-sized plastic chairs on a crowded street corner to enjoy the sweet, steamy treats. Another variation of Banh troi is Banh chay, which are bigger dumplings and stuffed with a sweet green bean puree. Banh troi tau, meanwhile, is made with dumplings of a similar size to those of banh chay but are stuffed with a bean puree with black sesame, and the syrup is flavoured with ginger and must be served warm. Although not many traditional cake makers stay loyal to the job, there is still a food store that offers these best traditional Vietnamese cakes in Hanoi: Qua Hanoi Xua at 47 Pham Hong Thai Street in Ba Dinh District.
Banh tom Ho Tay
Shrimp cake. Photo: Viet Tuan
Banh tom Ho Tay, or West Lake shrimp cake, is one of the first things Vietnamese tourists coming to Hanoi try. The famed dish is named after West Lake, the largest and most beautiful in the capital and the home of the shrimp that form the basis for banh tom Ho Tay. However, there is more to West Lake shrimp cake than just shrimp. The spongy dish is made from thinly-sliced potato or sweet potato, rice flour and a host of other ingredients. After frying, the dish is the bright yellow of sunlight and a perfect accompaniment to its signature sauce made from garlic, vinegar, sugar, chilli, fish sauce, salt, pepper and small pieces of carrot and green papaya.
Just like the fine mix of sweet, sour, hot and salty tastes that make up the sauce, banh tom Ho Tay itself is a winning combination of tastes and textures, with its crispy outer coating, fresh raw vegetables, and shrimp placed in the middle like a culinary question mark.
These days, as it becomes more popular, the rice flour in the dish is increasingly replaced by wheat flour and the shrimp comes from other sources around Hanoi as well as the famous West Lake. Many restaurants around West Lake, near Phu Tay Ho (West Lake Pagoda) now specialise in banh tom Ho Tay. The price for a portion is around VND30,000.
Banh khuc. Photo: Viet Tuan
The main ingredients of Banh khuc are khuc leaf, which is grown on the banks of the Red River, and sticky rice. The boiled leaves are first pounded into pulp then mixed with sticky rice flour to make a dark green mixture, before being rolled into portions the size of a child’s fist. Each piece is then be rolled in boiled, ground green peas and meat, half fat and half lean, which has been soaked in pepper. Finally the banh khuc is layered into a large steamer, with each layer covered with carefully-soaked sticky rice, until the pot is full. The cakes are then steamed on a low heat until a delicious aroma permeates the air. Holding a hot banh khuc in one’s hand and examining each grain of sticky rice around the outside before finally biting into it is one of the great joys to be had on a cold Hanoi night. The smell of sticky rice blended with the scent of khuc, green peas and spiced meat leaves an indelible impression. The most famous banh khuc in town is Banh Khuc Co Lan, made by Ms Lan in the Old Quarter’s Cau Go Street.