39. Breakfast of Champions

What’s on the morning menu in Vietnam? What do people eat at the start of the day that might differ from later? Surprisingly, perhaps, some things are always popular.

A team of cooks prepare a morning meal street-side in Saigon’s District 6. (JGA photo)

Đặng was insistent. It was 9:30 in the morning — late, by Vietnamese standards, for breaking the overnight fast — and I was hungry.

“John,” he approached me after I finished teaching an early class, “there’s a new restaurant just down the street that is serving bánh cuốn. Have you tried it yet?”

As a fellow teacher in Saigon who had attended university in the United States, Đặng, or “Andy,” spoke better English than most of my colleagues. More importantly, perhaps, he had a strong sense of which Vietnamese foods might appeal to Westerners.

He made the right call on bánh cuốn.

Pork sausage and bean sprouts accompany rolled rice flour in a bánh cuốn. (JGA photo)

‘Rolled cake’

There is no standard morning meal in Vietnam, nothing like bacon and eggs in America or a baguette with cheese and sausage in western Europe. Indeed, a steaming bowl of phở is as popular a repast to start the day as any other. But bánh cuốn immediately elevated itself high on my list of options.

A Vietnamese-to-English dictionary will tell you bánh means “cake.” That’s a very basic interpretation, as pretty much anything with a principal ingredient of flour is called bánh. In the case of bánh cuốn (literally “rolled cake”), it’s a broad thin sheet of rice-flour batter, steamed and fermented.

The steamed cake is filled with a mixture of ground pork with minced mushrooms and shallots, seasoned and fried. It is most often served with additional meats, usually traditional Vietnamese pork sausage (chả lụa), and such vegetables as sliced cucumber, bean sprouts and/or salad. There may sometimes be prawns. There is always a dipping sauce of nước chấm (fish sauce) and condiments such as soy sauce and tiny but very hot red chilies.

A street vendor makes savory crepes called bánh xèo in Saigon’s District 9. (JGA photo)

‘Sizzling cake’

Another popular morning meal, offered at both restaurants and street stalls, is bánh xèo, or “sizzling cake.” A sort of crêpe or savory fried pancake, its base is a thin flour of rice, egg and water seasoned with turmeric powder and spread on a very hot grill or skillet.

Upon this flavorful crêpe, the chef will fold in a generous helping of sliced pork, prawns and bean sprouts. Additions might be green onion, mung beans, basil or mint.

I love a good bánh xèo in spite of one peeve — the preparation of prawns or shrimp. Vietnam’s seafood industry is thriving, thanks in large part to the popularity of these crustaceans, which are farmed in several locations. But the translucent shells, not to mention the heads, are almost never removed before serving. My interest in bánh xèo fades a little when I’m forced to pick pieces of prawn shell out of my mouth.

Shrimp paste and cakes made of rice and tapioca flours add to the savory goodness of bánh bèo. (JGA photo)

‘Water fern cake’

One of the most popular places to eat bánh bèo in Buôn Ma Thuột, where I currently live, is no more than 100 meters down the street from my house. The eatery’s schedule is unpredictable, but it’s easy to tell when its gate is open: A dozen or more motorbikes are parked side-by-side outside, and as I ride past I can see diners seated shoulder-to-shoulder at a pair of long aluminum tables.

Bánh bèo originated in Huế, the ancient imperial capital in central Vietnam. It can be either a morning or midday snack or a restaurant dish. Small steamed cakes are made from a blend of rice and tapioca flours and served with small dried shrimp, crispy pork skin (or crunchy minced bacon) and scallion oil. In some regional versions, shrimp and pork paste may be a filling, or sweet mashed mung beans may be a topping.

Frequently bánh bèo are served in small individual dishes and eaten directly from the saucer after being scraped free with a spoon or chopstick. It is named for the water fern or duckweed, an aquatic plant that floats on or near the surface of placid lakes — even though this is not an ingredient. Perhaps, in the distant past, it once was.

Homemade salmon porridge can be a delicious start to the day. (JGA photo)

Soup and sandwich

Since I’ve been in Vietnam, I haven’t once touched oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. On the other hand, rice porridge is ubiquitous on the streets early in the morning. In my household, a little fresh fish — lightly grilled salmon and eel, sprinkled with green onions and red chilies — are popular choices

Other soups never let down a person with a hearty appetite. As noted previously, phở never fails to please, and the same may be said of bún bò Huế. The key to flavor is to place fresh noodles in a bowl and to pour the potage on top, not to combine the two in advance.

My first breakfast passion after arriving in Vietnam nearly two years ago was a bánh mì sandwich, and it’s still among my favorites. A French baguette sliced lengthwise and packed with chopped pork, carrot-radish slaw and other vegetables, it is delicious at any time of day. And there’s a particular breakfast version called the bánh mì trung p-la, or fried-egg sandwich.

A note to my friend Đặng (“Andy”): I owe you one, buddy. If you make it up my direction one of these months, I know a couple of great new breakfast places I’d like to share.

Morning, noon or night, there’s never a best time to enjoy phở. (JGA photo)
Bánh cuốn is a delicious meal that is rarely sold after 10:30 a.m. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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