Photo by Sian Kavanagh

Rice paper rolled up with boiled pork and vegetables… There’s a reason that this dish from Tay Ninh near the Cambodian border is a Saigon favourite. Words by Vi Pham. Photos by Siân Kavanagh

 

Saigon is a melting pot of recipes from different regions in Vietnam, but not every dish can reach the level of being tasty, nutritious and affordable enough to capture a market. Banh trang Trang Bang (Trang Bang rice paper) is one of the few street foods that has managed to bloom on Saigon’s busy sidewalks. More than a dish, it is the pride of a developing province in Vietnam — Tay Ninh.

 

As one of the most industrialised districts of Tay Ninh, Trang Bang gathers its fame from its practice of making banh trang and the tradition of producing banh trang phoi suong (rice paper with midnight dew). Last April the dish won an award for being an intangible part of Vietnam’s cultural heritage.

 

The Art of Making Banh Trang

 

For the locals, it is not a coincidence for that this dish from Trang Bang won the award. They earned it for their hard-working spirit and most of all, the innovation behind the traditionally thin and vulnerable banh trang.

 

Banh trang Trang Bang is a table of herbs, pickled carrot, juicy boiled pork slices, rice noodles, a dip and the essential wrapping, rice paper. Having realised that regular rice paper or banh trang would be too weak to wrap around such a diverse and rich filling, the people of Trang Bang came up with a thicker and chewier version— banh trang phoi suong. It’s also more complicated to make.

 

Compared to regular banh trang, this version requires twice the number of steps. After making the regular sheets of banh trang, two layers of rice paper are combined and placed on a flat bamboo net and then dried under the sun. This allows the thickness to form and the two layers to become one. When dry, the rice paper is grilled over a stove to create extra puffiness. The banh trang is then exposed to the night air to absorb the midnight dew. This is when the chewiness forms, making the rice paper suitable to make into rolls. The people who produce the rice paper have to wake up early to check on the product and go to sleep around midnight to ensure that it has the correct exposure to the night air.

 

“The hardest step is the exposure process,” says Mrs. Lanh, a banh trang phoi suong maker who has run her family business for more than 20 years.

 

“If the weather is too hot, the sheets crack easily, and it’s even worse during rainy season when it pours down at random times. There is a high chance we’ll lose everything if we don’t get the banh trang sheets covered in time.”

Photo by Sian Kavanagh 

More than a Street Food

 

The tradition of making banh trang phoi suong has become so well-known and celebrated that the town now has its very own tourist industry. Tours to a banh trang village and around the family factories where the rice paper is made attract a lot of attention, and not surprisingly, banh trang phoi suong is a favourite souvenir.

 

But there is one more thing that makes this dish so appealing — the healthy filling. One of the essential ingredients in a full meal of banh trang Trang Bang is the stack of fresh herbs. These herbs together go by the rustic name of rau rung (vegetables that grow in the forest).

 

Just one bite into a roll and you can taste the different combination of flavours coming from the jungle vegetables. Said to have medicinal properties, the herbs help reduce body temperature during the dry season when southern Vietnam heats up like a furnace. As the demand for banh trang Trang Bang expands, so the traditional sources of rau rung are not enough to fulfil demand.

 

This increases the opportunity for families in Trang Bang to develop their own herb and vegetable business. Every day, trucks filled with homegrown products carry the freshness to Saigon streets and deliver them to everywhere from street stalls to restaurants.

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