As Vietnam’s economic hub, Ho Chi Minh City attracts millions of people from all over the country who come for better jobs. So it makes sense that you can find here a variety of flavors from different places.
Some culinary fads have come and gone. Almost nobody can remember them after all the fanfare has dissipated.
A few dishes from the central region, on the other hand, made silent entries to the city’s food scene, but somehow have managed to survive for years.
Bánh căn, a fried seafood pancake from the town of Phan Rang, is one of those success stories.
There are about a dozen of bánh căn restaurants across Saigon, and foodies have voted Hien II, a family-run eatery on Hoang Sa Street in District 3, as one of the best.
Nguyen Thi Hien starts her day at 5 a.m. though she only begins to make her signature pancakes from 4 p.m. until 9:30 p.m.
The 50-year-old woman first goes to a local market to buy fresh vegetables, seafood, pork, eggs, and spices before preparing for bánh căn and other Phan Rang specialities — bánh canh chả cá (tapioca noodle and deep-fried fish paste soup) and chả cuốn (deep-fried fish paste soup and egg rolls) along with her husband.
When customers come, Hien puts a little vegetable oil and rice flour mixture in the clay mold. She then adds shrimp, cuttlefish, minced pork, and chicken egg or quail egg before covering them with a lid and waiting for a minute or two. Finally, she adds some green onion oil, aka mỡ hành, and serves customers.
When I visited Hien’s restaurant last Tuesday, I found her bánh căn perfect: crispy on the outside but still very spongy and soft inside.
Another key to good bánh căn is in the dipping sauces. And Hien has secret recipes that will win everyone over.
I love mắm nêm, a sauce made of fermented fish, so I mixed it with shreds of green mango to eat with bánh căn. You can choose other dipping sauces — nước nắm chua ngọt (fish sauce mixed with lime and sugar) or nước mắm đậu phộng cà chua (fish sauce mixed with ground roasted peanut and tomato). Some even mix three sauces together.
In the central region, diners pour their favorite sauce in a bowl, then soak bánh căn into the sauce, together with shreds of green mango. No vegetables.
But in Saigon, people prefer to use lettuce or mustard greens to wrap bánh căn and herbs before dipping in the sauce with shreds of green mango.
Hien’s basket of herbs includes the leaves of é, which I don’t see at other bánh căn restaurants in Saigon. É is a special plant of Phan Rang that is similar to basil.
Hien says she asks a farmer in Phan Rang to harvest é leaves every afternoon before telling a vendor to bring the leaves to her restaurant, 350 kilometers from the central town.
This vendor also helps Hien buy chả cá (deep-fried fish paste) from Phan Rang to make bánh canh chả cá (tapioca noodle and deep-fried fish paste soup) and chả cuốn (deep-fried fish paste and egg rolls).
“I like chả cá from a factory near my house in Phan Rang as it is made purely from fish. In Saigon, people mix fish with corn flour, so it doesn’t taste good,” said Hien.
Hien’s pickiness works. Her small restaurant is often so crowded that she and husband have to hire two woman to serve customers with them.