In the late afternoons, when it is too early for the dinner, I often stop by the banh trang nuong (grilled dry pancake) stall near the Notre Dame Cathedral for a light downtown snack.
Besides the Notre Dame location on Han Tuyen street, banh trang nuong can also be found on Nguyen Hue street in District 1 and several other locations in the city.
Banh trang nuong is one of the newest street snacks in town. It was originally created in Dalat.
“Over the last year, this kind of snack has become more popular in Ho Chi Minh City, but I have been cooking it for around two years,” said the multi-tasking cook who I interviewed while she prepared a batch of banh trang nuong in front of the city’s trademark church.
She spread a dry pancake over hot charcoals in a pot and quickly spreads on the other ingredients. At the same time, she spoke with me, and looked around to see if the police were coming or not. Pavement food stalls are banned in the Notre Dame Cathedral area.
Banh trang nuong reveals how open Dalat cooking is to foreign food culture. Dalat was founded by the French during colonial times. As a result, French flavors such as butter, baguette bread, and jam have been used in local cuisine for decades.
The price for one banh trang nuong is only VND7,000, the same as a mere motorbike parking fee at fancy establishments in District 1. In this city, it is a super cheap snack but the taste is also super interesting, and its fun to eat.
Banh trang nuong includes tiny dry shrimp, a quail egg, ground pork, and chili paste all linked by a key French culinary staple: butter. All of these ingredients are very thinly spread over a round dry pancake, which is then folded in half when the cake is almost completely grilled.
It takes only a minute to grill a single banh trang nuong, perfect for food stall owners needing to escape the police.
Normally a tiny food stall with a pot of hot charcoal and boxes of ingredients is looked after by a family, typically a wife and husband or a mother and her children. One will be in charge of cooking and the others keep look-out.
They have to spot the police from far enough away to be able to evade them. When the police approach, each member of the group will pack up a small part of the food stall and run in a different direction.
Although banh trang nuong is a new dish, it reflects traditional Vietnamese cooking concepts that promote contrast in texture and color. There are different tastes and textures such as crunchy (dry pancake), spicy (chili sauce), fatty (butter), something salty and dry (tiny dried shrimp), and the freshness of shallots and quail eggs.
Banh trang nuong also includes a variety of colors: green (shallot), yellow (butter and quail egg), red (chili paste) and sand color (pancake).
When my cake was almost done, the cook turned it to grill the other side evenly. The cake was very hot, and the cook reminded me to be careful. Her husband gave me a piece of paper so I could hold the hot cake with my fingers
Banh trang nuong has a the nice fragrance of baked butter mixed with other fresh and dry ingredients. This taste is perfect for the late afternoon, when the temperature cools — it’s especially good after the rain. I like sitting under a tamarind tree and enjoying the cake while watching the sunset over Notre Dame Cathedral and April 30th Park.
Around me, most other diners are groups of young people, sitting on newspapers splayed out on the sidewalk. It is a special place to enjoy a relaxing moment in such a lively city.