Banh cuon is a popular Vietnamese dish. There’s a restaurant in the Fubonn plaza, called Banh Cuon Tan Dinh, which, as you can guess, specializes in Banh Cuon. You could go there. They take credit cards and everything.
But here’s another tip for you: you can eat it at home as well, quite easily, for 1/3 the price. There’s a store on 99th and Prescott, called Hong Phat, and another on 65th and Sandy, Thanh Thao, that sell pre-made banh cuon. Don’t worry, all banh cuon is pre-made…you don’t whip up this dish on the spot. It’s a (slight) reheat and simple garnish effort, so as long as the banh cuon itself is of decent comport, you’ll be in a good spot as long as you’ve got your garnish act together. And it’s cheap…you can get nearly 3 servings out of a single to-go container.
First of all, what are banh cuon? Imagine it as a rice flour cannoli. Sheets of rice “pasta” or “crepe” are rolled around a filling consisting (usually) of seasoned and sauteed ground pork and wood ear mushrooms. The banh cuon are plated and typically topped with fried shallots, fresh herbs, blanched bean sprouts, and thin slices of cha lua (a fish sauce scented pork loaf, aka Vietnamese bologna). The whole plate is given a generous drink of nuoc cham, a Vietnamese condiment made with fish sauce (“nuoc mam”), chilies, sugar, lime juice, and often pickled garlic, and maybe dressed with some shredded carrots or even daikon.
The banh cuon themselves are rather labor intensive. I guess. My mom never made them much growing up, because one of her best friends was in business making Vietnamese specialties like banh cuon, bun bao, even her own cha lua, and selling them to the Vietnamese community (and a few Tucson area offices during lunch). This friend made amazing stuff, so what was the point in doing it yourself? So what I’m doing here, taking other people’s canvasses and coloring by numbers, is very much in the fine tradition of the Vietnamese-American experience. That, and marathon gambling, moth balls, yelling into phone handsets for no apparent reason, voting knee-jerkingly Republican, 2-foot spoilers on Nissan Sentras, drinking insane amounts of Hennessey, shaming your own children because their friend’s child graduated from UC Irvine with a BSEE in 2.5 years, harboring a healthy distrust of conventional FDIC-insured banking institutions, etc.
If you do want to make it yourself, here’s a very nice step-by-step post and wonderful photo gallery.
Hong Phat and Thanh Thao will give you the base banh cuon to work from. The sell these plastic to-go containers in their respective deli sections for only $5. One advantage of making them yourself: these are a bit on sparse end in terms of meat filling, so if you rolled your own you can be more generous. But since it’s only $5, they taste just fine, and I will be adding a generous helping of sliced meat topping, I’m not going to be a whiny ass titty baby about it.
Here are the toppings:
1. Bean sprouts. Blanch them in boiling water for about 10 seconds and then drain and shock them in an ice bath and then drain and set aside.
2. Cucumber. Peel, cut off the end, then score the blunt end three times, then slice thinly.
3. Cilantro. Chop up a bunch.
4. Mint (if you want to add that purplish mint and shiso then you’re well on your way in becoming the coolest person ever). Chop up a bunch, yeah?
5. Thai basil leaves (optional). I like it. Or not.
6. Fried shallots. You can do this yourself, or buy the dried stuff the sell on the shelves.
7. Nuoc cham sauce (recipe to follow).
8. Cha lua . Slice as thin as possible and then halve those thin slices.
First the cha lua. Most markets will sell this brand, sometimes in the freezer section. This will do, but Hong Phat has their own cha lua THAT IS DEEP FRIED. And this is the lean stuff, not the stuff with the strange, ringworm-type vein of organ fat running the length of the loaf. I’ll mention it once again, in case you missed it the first time. This cha lua IS DEEP FRIED.
Apparently, once it is DEEP FRIED, it magically takes on transformative taxonomical properties and becomes “cha chien”. Simply amazing.
For the sake of the scientific method, I present you the cross-section of THE DEEP FRIED cha chien.
So here’s the MO: plate the banh cuon. I would only use about 1/3 (or slightly more) of the portion you’ve just bought. Top with bean sprouts and tent with plastic wrap. Nuke in the microwave for 45 seconds.
Scatter a generous amount of cha lua on top. Top with herbs and shallots.
Spoon as much nuoc cham as you’d like — I won’t tell you how much because I’m not normal and eat way too much of this stuff. I don’t want to drag you into my world. I didn’t choose this life, and it isn’t for everyone. Ride the snake if you must.
Here’s an example of the work-in-progress. Notice the pool of nuoc cham at the bottom of the plate. After finishing the banh cuon, I will drink this. Don’t judge me. I’m not a role model.
Case in point: I don’t subject my daughter to the sauce. It’s not for everyone. She has the innocence of childhood to experience before she herself foments any vices.
Now for the nuoc cham recipe.
Funny story. Growing up, we called this “nuoc mam”, when in fact it is properly referred to as “nuoc cham”. I guess. This point was really hammered home one occasion when I saw Emeril Lagasse in 1997 on the Food Network (before Emeril Live when he became a circus freakshow) make lemongrass beef salad and he kept saying “nuoc CHAAAAHHHHHHM” over and over with a huge emphasis on “CHAM” with a long overextension of the “AAAAHHHHMMM” like he was a drunk Red Sox fan yelling “No-MAAAHHHH Garcia-PAH-AAAHHHHHH”.
We still called fish sauce (the uncut, bottled stuff) “nuoc mam” as well. But whether you referred to fish sauce or the prepared condiment depended on context, much like when the Republican Party says they are all about upholding the constitution. And at every Vietnamese restaurant I’ve been to, each time I ask for nuoc mam with my goi cuon, there has been no misunderstanding, so I don’t think this was peculiar to my household.
That was not a funny story at all.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the “nuoc CHAAAAHHHHHHM”. One, which is my Mom’s style, is spicy, vibrant, full of sweet and sour and tangy. She’s from the south, so I think of it as “The Republic” sauce. Up in the north, as I understand it (and I admittedly lack advanced comprehension skills), they can be a bit more timid, and will maybe just cut fish sauce with a bit of water and sugar. That’s it. Commie red bastards.
Uncle Ho’s Nightmare Sauce (aka aggressive Nuoc Cham)
- 1 or 2 garlic cloves
- Couple thai chilies
- 1/2 small can pickled garlic (you can find this at Viet/asian markets)
- 1 teaspoon ground chili paste (aka sambal olek)
- 1/2 cup fish sauce (buy the most expensive you can find – I use Flying Lion brand)
- 2/3 cup hot water
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
- 2 limes
- Shredded carrots if you want
Combine garlics, fresh chilis and ground chili in mortar and pound with a pestle. Transfer to a jar, and pour in wet ingredients. Halve the limes, and squeeze them into the jar. IMPORTANT! Don’t throw away that lime. Take a small paring knife and cut into the sections and get as much pulp sacs from the fruit itself. THIS IS IMPORTANT! I CANNOT STRESS IT ENOUGH.
Pour in sugar and stir until combined. Taste for sweetness, you might want to add some sugar to take the edge off.
This recipe scales incredibly well, and will keep a long time. I’ve been known to make a huge jar of the stuff and keep it in the back of my fridge. Usually I’ll time it so my batch of nuoc cham runs out just when my mom visits, and I’ll let her make the next industrial sized batch.