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Steamed dumplings show Vietnam’s history

Bánh bột lọc is a popular dish in Vietnam’s north and central regions. These clear dumplings cooked in banana leaves are said to have originated in the former imperial capital city of Hue.

Small treat: Unwrapped bánh bột lọc trần.
Small treat: Unwrapped bánh bột lọc trần.

The dish recently gained international recognition when it was put on CNN’s list of the world’s 30 most delicious steamed cakes, accompanied by worldwide favorites such as Shanghai’s baozi (steamed buns) and Italy’s ravioli.

Nguyen Thi Vui, 45, grew up in Hue and moved to Hanoi almost 10 years ago. She sells these remarkable dumplings at a shop in Gia Lam District. Vui said bánh bột lọc is the perfect dish – small, affordable and tasty.

To make the dumplings, cassava powder is kneaded with water and then filled with shrimp and pork belly or minced pork. Each dumpling is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. The portions are kept small (no bigger than two fingers) to attract diners and provide an enjoyable snack that does not fill them up.

Vui told me she learned to make the dish from her mother when she was young.

“My mother sold the cakes for nearly half a century to feed the 12 members of my family,” said Vui. “She was one of the best bánh bột lọc makers in Hue.”

Vui’s mother used to order fresh shrimp from the river, known locally as tôm đồng, and pork raised on natural foods. She chose a quality, traditional fish sauce to round out the flavour, making her dumplings stand out from the crowd.

Vui and her family would harvest banana leaves from their garden one day in advance so there would be time to cut, clean and dry them. Each cake was wrapped in two leaves.

Steaming or boiling the cakes for 20 minutes in their tightly wrapped bundles helps maintain their distinctive flavour and hold their shape.

In progress: Nguyen Thi Vui boils her dumplings.
In progress: Nguyen Thi Vui boils her dumplings.

Diners enjoy unwrapping each cake and dipping it in a special sauce made of simmered shrimp heads, fish sauce, peppers, dried onion, sugar and chili.

Vui said that although she moved away from Hue, she still uses her mother’s old recipe. This may be why her cakes have sold so well despite her location as far as some five kilometres from the city centre.

Sixty-seven-year-old Nguyen Bich Lien, from Hanoi’s Old Quarter, said she often orders from Vui’s shop for breakfast because the dumplings can be refrigerated for a week. Each order is about 100 dumplings.

“I’ve eaten bánh bột lọc in Hanoi, HCM City, Da Nang, Quang Binh and other provinces, but Vui’s dish is unique because she uses fresh cassava powder and fresh shrimp and pork,” Lien said. “I like taking off the banana leaves before enjoying the dish with herbs such as basil, coriander and marjoram, and I love the special dipping sauce.”

In Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung, Dao Thi Vien sells bánh bột lọc trần, a variation that is not wrapped in banana leaves. These dumplings have a milky colour, and are not as thin as their cousins from Hue.

Vien’s dumplings are often filled with minced pork, wood ear mushrooms and tiny shrimp. The dipping sauce is also different, made from vinegar, sugar, ground peanuts and fresh papaya. Marjoram is the only accompanying herb.

Tran Thi Nguyet, who loves the dish, said she particularly likes Vien’s bánh bột lọc trần, especially when they are served in hot broth.

“It’s a very healthy and enjoyable way to start the day, especially during the winter,” she said.

Herbalist Bui Dac Sang from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology said the popular dish is very nutritious thanks to its high levels of protein, calcium and other nutrients.

“One can eat quite a lot without gaining weight,” Sang said.

Master at work: Vui wraps her bánh bột lọc by hand.
Master at work: Vui wraps her bánh bột lọc by hand.
Healthy portion: A tray of the small, tasty dumplings.
Healthy portion: A tray of the small, tasty dumplings.