One of a kind

Trang Bang rice paper is renowned around Vietnam for its unique softness and taste.

By Le Diem on October 20,2018 11:10 AM

One of a kind

photos: Kim Cuong

When the paper makes a popping sound after being dried in the sun, it is put in an oven to bake. 

If “pho” is regarded as the “king” of Vietnamese food and best known among foreigners, then “nem” (spring rolls) is perhaps the “queen”. One of the key ingredients in “nem” is the rice paper it’s rolled in. Rice paper (banh trang) features in a lot of Vietnamese cuisine, from the north through the center to the south. It comes in various textures, types, and shapes, thin, soft or thick, with sesame, shrimp, or coconut flavor added, and is circular or squared. “Rice paper under the dew” from Trang Bang district in southern Tay Ninh province has an outstanding reputation for its uniqueness.

Trang Bang rice paper followed people during the southward expansion hundreds of years ago. It was originally made in the traditional manner but, legend has it, one day a family accidentally left some outside after drying it under the sun and the next morning found it softer and easier to roll compared to the usual crispy paper, which always needed water added. It also had a nicer taste. They invited some neighbors to try it, who were nicely surprised. Since then, the new technique has been used widely in Trang Bang, hence its name “rice paper under the dew”.

In Tay Ninh and Trang Bang district today are mounds of bamboo wattles covering the thin paper everywhere; one of the basic steps in making rice paper, including the special Trang Bang version.

The most important ingredient for making rice paper is rice flour, according to Ms. Pham Thi Duong, a resident of Trang Bang who has made rice paper for more than 40 years. The rice is recently harvested, deliciously scented, and pure, and without any other substance or mixed with any other type of rice.

The rice is washed and soaked in water for a few hours to make it easier to smoothly grind and increase starch collection. It is then ground into flour and mixed with water and salt into a batter.

The batter is then spread with a large spoon onto a cloth stretched over a wide pot of boiling water, making a layer of rice paper. Common paper usually needs just one layer but it breaks when being dried under the dew. So, local people brainstormed and decided two layers did the trick. “We need to make thin and even layers for both appearance and taste,” Ms. Duong said.

One of a kind

The wet paper is put into bamboo drainers to dry under the sun for a few hours. Tay Ninh receives a lot of sunshine during the day and dew at night, which results in its special rice paper.

When the paper makes a popping sound after being dried in the sun, it is put in an oven to bake. The cook needs to turn the paper over to make sure it doesn’t burn and remains white.

Finally, the rice paper is left outside overnight to absorb the dew. The best time to do this is around 2am, when there is a lot of dew, according to Ms. Duong. She stays awake watching over her paper then takes it indoors and packs it in plastic bags to retain the softness, otherwise it would be too wet and lose its taste. “It’s hard work, requiring meticulous attention,” she said. “But I’ve done this my whole life. If one day I no longer heard the familiar sound of the paper popping under the sun, I would miss it.”

Trang Bang rice paper features a good “skin” with a soft and nice texture as well as a unique taste that makes it the most popular in the area. The rice paper trade of Trang Bang district was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2016.

Trang Bang rice paper is most commonly used as the exclusive paper in “banh trang cuon thit heo” (pork belly with fresh vegetables wrapped in rice paper), one of the local specialties. In addition to the special rice paper, which is thicker but softer, Southern-style vegetables make the dish even more delicious. These include sesame sprouts, ambarella leaves, basil, houttuynia, and coriander, plus thin slices of purple cabbage, star fruit, unripe banana, cucumber and carrot. The dish is served with a Tay Ninh-style dipping sauce with quite a strong taste. Every bite is memorable and you’ll be sure to want to try it again another time.

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