Saigon is the land of street food and as the chilly winds embrace the place, it is now the best time of the year to enjoy banh ong la dua (steamed pandan cake with coconut filling in a tube). I call it the merry snack of Saigon — just one bite into the hot and steamy freshly made banh ong la dua can warm your body up and boost your mood.
How can one stay in a bad mood, when watching the fun cooking process of this snack? The filling is a surprise. Behind that plain white crunchy layer of rice paper is a steamy mixture of ground cassava, flour, pandanus juice and coconut sprinkles. The ground cassava helps maintain the spongy texture, preventing the cake from being sloppy, while the pandanus juice adds in a fresh colour of green and a cosy flavour.
Ancient and Modern
Banh ong la dua is one of just a few traditional snacks managing to stay competitive at a time when foreign fast food enters Vietnam. Vendors have adapted the local fare to stay responsive to the demands of snackers. While banh to ong or chuoi nuong are struggling with a decline in sales, banh ong la dua sellers deal with the snack crisis with constant adjustments to equipment, presentation and location.
Originating from the Khmer community in Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta, banh ong la dua started with the most basic steamer — the cake was steamed directly in the bamboo tubes. It’s now hard to find one in Saigon made with these bamboo steamers. Most sellers have replaced the bamboo tubes with custom metal versions for convenience, lower prices and availability.
Even the wrapping has changed to suit modern-day Saigon. Banh ong la dua used to be wrapped in a layer of banana leaf rather than rice paper, but it would be hard to find a large amount of fresh banana leaves for daily consumption in the city as they only last for one or two days and are difficult to store.
“The banana leaf wrapping gives the cake a much better aroma,” a seller on Nguyen Trai insisted. “And the cakes are softer if they are steamed in bamboo tubes.”
Banh ong la dua used to be carried around the city on shoulder poles but as demand has shifted, sellers now also use bicycles to approach customers more easily. They can travel further carrying their stove and steamer.
However, as the snack gathers more and more attention, foodies find it inconvenient when the sellers are constantly moving around. Because of this, some sellers are starting to settle down on one spot. Business has been promising.
The power of online
Before having a little chat with the seller on Nguyen Trai, I prepared myself for head-shaking and a long face when I asked her: “How is the business now compared to when you first started?”
Her answer surprised me.
“Oh, it is much better now,” she said. “Many foodies have photographed my cakes, uploading pictures to the internet. It’s got me lots of customers.”
Indeed, the internet has had a huge impact on the business. Online reviews and the ease of posting photos on social media has brought banh ong la dua a hopeful future. People’s love for the snack and their childhood stories are spread and discussed, as well as people sharing places to buy the cake.
For a taste of the traditional, check out the banh ong la dua lady in front of 45A Nguyen Trai, Q5, HCMC and the crossroad of Phan Dinh Phung and Phan Dang Luu, Phu Nhuan, HCMC from 2pm to 10pm. These are fixed locations and the sellers still use bamboo steamers. If you are lucky, you may also buy from mobile sellers on Nguyen Hue and Le Loi Streets in District 1