“Some dishes just belong to the street vendors in a particular place, and you have to respect that,” says Andrea Nguyen, the James Beard Award-winning cookbook author. She’s talking about bánh tráng nướng, a grilled round rice sheet dressed with egg, meats, sauces, and crunchy toppings. Most popular among school children, the snacks are sold by vendors who typically park their small carts outside of schools with a stack of tiny, brightly colored plastic chairs in tow. “This is kind of like a junk food for kids, adults don’t really eat this,” says Nguyen with a chuckle. “That didn’t stop me though.”
At Nguyen’s favorite stand in Ho Chi Minh City, the bánh tráng nướng starts with the standard swirl of scallion oil. It’s then topped with a freshly cracked quail egg, to serve as binder, often followed by a medley of processed foods to appeal to younger clientele; some vendors opt for Vienna sausages or even potato chips, but at this stand the topping of choice is fried shoestring potatoes, straight from the can. “I hadn’t seen those in years!” Nguyen recounts with delight. Finally, a generous squeeze of sauce—a thick, brown one made from beef jerky juices, though others may add a drizzle of mayonnaise. Freshly grilled over a charcoal brazier, these “sweet, fatty, salty hits” are particularly kid-friendly, and offer an interesting peek into the increasingly global preferences of Vietnamese youth.
After having multiple outstanding versions across Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, Nguyen attempted to recreate the dish back home in California. Things did not go well. “Even when I tried to make this with my favorite [rice paper] brand, or even brown rice paper, it kept sticking like bejesus, or just warped or sometimes burned.” Upon further investigation, she found that the rice paper sheets sold in the States are primarily made from tapioca flour—not rice. “So you have an inversion, where there’s more tapioca than rice,” Nguyen says. “Some ‘rice papers’ are actually 100% tapioca!” As a result, instead of crisping like rice paper that’s actually made from rice, tapioca-based rice paper has a habit of melting and struggles to retain the necessary structure and shape to support any toppings. “It’s like chewing on plastic stuck to your teeth,” she says.
Eventually, Nguyen gave up on perfecting bánh tráng nướng at home. But the ups and downs of her journey prompted her to examine the assumptions we often make about foods that we view as “cheap eats.” Thinking back to that day, eating five helpings of bánh tráng nướng while talking to her favorite vendor, it struck her that “this was [the vendor’s] only dish, and she makes it to order. [In the US], we would call that an artisanal product; it would be seven, eight dollars.” But because this street snack costs less than a buck, it’s all too easy to assume it’s something anyone can quickly and easily reproduce on a whim. “There’s this notion that if something is cheap, it should be replicable and easy to master at home,” Nguyen says. “I cannot tell you how angry that makes me. There is a craft to this food, and you don’t understand the craft until you make it yourself, and have to undo that wad of tapioca stuck to your molars.”
Solving the Rice-Paper Puzzle
Across the country in Brooklyn, Dennis Ngo, the executive chef of Di An Di, found a solution to the tapioca-rice debacles in Nguyen’s kitchen: gluing two pieces of rice paper together with water, per a suggestion from then-chef de cuisine Jerald Head. “I wasn’t born in Vietnam, so I didn’t have context for this dish,” says Ngo. “I didn’t have a reference point [when I was first making it] because I hadn’t eaten it yet.” The inspiration to experiment on bánh tráng nướng came from YouTube, which Ngo would watch regularly to “keep up with the street food of Vietnam, which evolves so quickly.”
The first issue was to mitigate the inconsistencies across rice paper varieties. Wetting the two rounds with water and letting them cook together over a gas grill fuses them together. “Its thickness could then support the weight of the toppings,” says Ngo. This method also manages to address the plasticky tapioca issue as well: the water helps to hydrate and puff the rounds for a light and crackly texture, not a tooth-cracking one. Ngo notes that heat management is particularly important for ensuring bánh tráng nướng success. “The grill needs to be hot enough to evaporate the water inside the rice paper, but at a rate it won’t burn the rice paper.”
To date, Ngo’s different versions of bánh tráng nướng have become one of the restaurant’s most popular offerings. To many of the chefs there, it was also emblematic of the mission of Di An Di itself: to share a perspective of Vietnamese food that multiple generations of Vietnamese-Americans could be inspired by. “This is not something we had exposure to day-to-day, growing up [in the States],” Ngo says. “So for us it was about being a good steward of the dish, providing our input for the dish, and sharing it with an audience that wasn’t aware of what [it is].” He is clear that this version is different from those in Vietnam. One notable difference is that “in Vietnam, you may see it rolled up, or folded like a taco”—flexibility that’s possible thanks to rice paper wrappers that are actually made with rice. Ngo’s workaround, on the other hand, produces a crunchy, cracker-like base that shatters if you try to bend it.
Still, Ngo draws from the original bánh tráng nướng sold from Vietnamese street carts. “Since in Vietnam this is catered to kids with toppings like processed cheese or canned corn, we also use those ingredients when we are making them for festivals, or for outdoor events.” For Di An Di’s mainstay version, he uses pork lardons and clams as an ode to “the central region of Vietnam, where my family is from, which is more reliant on seafood.” And when it comes to staff meal, he encourages everyone to be creative: “It’s a crispy shell that is rice paper–based. Once you understand the technique, it’s not helpful to be rigid. You know you need some fat, it should be portable, and it should be fun to eat.”
With Ngo’s encouragement to get creative and using his recipe as a starting point, I worked on my own version here. I start with his method of wetting and then sandwiching two rice paper sheets together, then cooking them either directly over an open flame or in a nonstick skillet. I won’t lie, this part isn’t immediately easy: The rice paper, once wet, wants to roll up on itself, so you need to keep it pressed down flat with the help of metal cooking tools (hands are out of the question as you’ll burn yourself). It will likely take a few tries before you get the hang of it.
Once the rice paper has crisped all over, I rub it with a scallion oil that I modeled on one from Ngo’s recipe. After that, beaten egg is drizzled on and cooked until it just starts to set (beware, it and the oil have a tendency to run, so if you’re cooking over an open flame, you may want to line your stovetop with aluminum foil for easier cleanup).
After that comes a generous topping of pork belly glazed in a sauce of fish sauce, sugar, and aromatics based on the flavors of this recipe for thit heo nuong xa, or grilled lemongrass pork. A final drizzle of chile oil (mine uses fresh bird’s eye chiles, Ngo’s calls for pickled), some pork (or shrimp or fish) floss, and fresh cilantro finishes it off.
Is it exactly like what you’d find sold from street carts in Vietnam? No, but Nguyen offers a helpful perspective on that. “When people make my recipe [for banh mi bread] and say ‘it doesn’t taste like the Vietnamese bakery down the street’—well, if you like it, then you should pay for it. They use conditioned flour, and that you can’t just replicate at home.” Instead of trying to create perfect copies of every dish, she holds onto her memories of those artisans and their craft. “Even if I can’t replicate [this dish] to my satisfaction, I can tell you the story that takes me right back to that moment.” As Nguyen puts it so beautifully, “Sometimes, it’s okay to step back from the table still a little hungry.”