As the weather in Hanoi turns a little bit chillier with drizzling rain, it’s natural that we crave foods that give us warmth and comfort. And for a lot of Hanoians, the ultimate food to have when it’s drizzling is banh duc.
In Vietnam, there’s a proverb that goes, “vo chong ta banh da banh duc” (us husband and wife are like girdle cake and steamed rice cake). But what does that simile tell us? Both banh duc (Vietnamese steamed rice cake) and banh da (girdle cake) are rustic dishes that symbolize a genuine, tight-knit relationship that remains steady with time. Particularly, banh duc is a nostalgic food that is close to the heart of those born in the countryside. It soothes not only the chilly weather, but also the soul.
Banh duc is a dish that’s common in all three regions of Vietnam. It originated from the countryside and is inexpensive so literally everyone can afford. Technically, banh duc is plain rice cake made from non-glutinous rice flour and could be either sweet or savory. While it’s a popular dish in both Southern and Northern Vietnam, each region has its own versions that are distinctive in flavor but equally delicious.
In Southern Vietnam, banh duc has a soft, gelatinous texture and is shaped like a block. If you have a sweet tooth, try banh duc la dua (green pandan rice cake)! It has a light green color and a mellow, pleasant floral aroma derived from pandan leaf extract and is often served with syrup, coconut milk, along with sprinkles of sesame seeds. You’ll also find banh duc khoai mon (taro steamed rice cake) and banh duc nuoc dua (steamed rice cake infused with coconut milk). There’s a savory version as well, which comes with shrimp floss topping.
On the other hand, the kind of banh duc that you’ll frequently find in Northern Vietnam, specifically in Hanoi, is savory and always served hot. There’s no addition of pandan leaf extract or any other natural coloring, so the banh duc here is always white in color and has a soft, gooey texture. It’s usually garnished with a savory mixture of ground pork, chopped wood-ear mushroom, and green onions. Fried shallots are also added for extra aroma and a crispy crunch. It’s then drenched in a light dipping fish sauce that resembles that of famous dishes such as banh cuon (Vietnamese steamed rice rolls) and bun cha (grilled pork and rice noodles).
Banh duc cham tuong (steamed rice cake with fermented soy bean sauce) is another variety that truly showcases the rustic cuisine of the Northern Vietnam. It’s the predecessor of all versions of banh duc, and comes in the form of gelatinous block with peanut pieces that add extra rich flavor and some crunchiness to the soft, jelly-like banh duc. Go for this dish, if you find the toppings distract you from tasting the flavor of banh duc. What’s also special about this dish is the dipping sauce, which is fermented soybean sauce. It’s rich in flavor, and pairs nicely with the simple banh duc.
One of my favorite dining options is located in 28 Hang Be. It has been in business for over 10 years, and serves an exuberant menu of banh duc including banh duc nong (the hot, Northern Vietnam style), banh duc tron (steamed rice cake salad), and banh duc cham tuong.
Banh duc nong is everyone’s favorite here, containing all the components that it’s supposed to have – sticky rice dough, savory mixture of ground pork and wood-ear mushroom, fried shallots with some fresh herbs on top. When delivered, it’s still piping hot so make sure to blow the food to cool it down or else you’ll most likely burn your tongue.
Banh duc tron is fun to eat and is ideal for the hot summer days. The broth isn’t fish sauce-based, but is made from peanuts and sesame seeds. This combo of the rich, slightly salty broth and the light banh duc flavor creates a nice harmony that’ll make you crave for more.
Lastly, we have the simple banh duc cham tuong. I like this dish the most, simply because the flavors and textures of the chewy rice cake and the rich, thick sauce complement each other so well that nothing else can beat it for me.
So, go visit when you’re looking for a light breakfast, or need a midday snack to enliven the day!