Opposite Mermaid Restaurant on Tran Phu St, Hoi An
A melt-in-the-mouth, crisp nest of herb-infused, tempura-like batter, cradling a flash-fried quail egg, presented with a tangle of grated young papaya, fresh greens and a secret recipe chilli dipping sauce served on the outskirts of Hoi An’s old town; this description of banh can supplied over dinner by visiting friends frankly had us pushing our clay oven pizzas aside.
Street food tip offs like this one don’t present themselves very often and what ensued was a two-week frenzied search of Hoi An’s backstreet food stalls backed up with the interrogation of every last one of our Vietnamese friends. Not one lead. All we had was a vague idea that there was quite likely just a two-hour window most afternoons to track down this two-bite delicacy; turns out it’s not just the cao lau noodle recipe Hoi An keeps close to its chest.
For those in the know in Hoi An, there’s a patch of street about six metres long that has a constant conveyor belt of rotating food stalls; it’s here we come for cao lau, served up every Friday at 17:30, by a friendly old Ba who makes the richest, most velvety gravy imaginable. It’s also here that we come when we want a real northern breakfast pho – none of that sugary, artificial broth common in Hoi An — served only before 07:30, by which time the vendor has run out. The chi lady that squats herself down here around 08:30 meanwhile is one of the last few who keeps a kettle full of medicinal, herbal tea made from the water of the Ba Le Well. This little stretch of street vendor heaven is also where we finally found what we had spent weeks searching for: Tuat’s Banh Can.
Tuat’s banh can stall is pure street theatre. Her tiny mobile stall is immaculately presented, clean as a whistle and perfectly organised, with four bubbling stock pots heated on piles of hot coals, each topped with what look very much like circular Yorkshire pudding trays. Tiny stall owner Tuat sits behind, sandwiched in place by a big red bucket filled with a light batter mix speckled with spring onion and carrot and a table laid out with blue and white china bowls of quail eggs, cha (grilled pork patties), nem (cured pork in banana leaf wraps) and plastic bags (of course) spilling with bright green salad and herbs. Her secret recipe chilli lines the front in small plastic bags secured with rubber bands.
Orders are taken, cooked and delivered in seconds. Despite no-one apparently knowing of banh can, it’s a very busy stall, crowded by motorbikes (the first time we have witnessed an orderly queue) passing by for take-away and eat-in diners perched on the usual miniature plastic stools.
We ordered two of everything for 25,000 VND; twice. It lived up to everything we were told, and then some. The tiny grilled pork patties were delicious, the quail eggs slightly gooey in the middle and the cured pork laced with crushed black pepper… Hungry yet? (Ed: Yes. Stop.)
Researching the origin of banh can has proved to be as difficult as finding the stall. Tuat and her ancestors hail from Hoi An; it’s her recipe and it’s certainly very different to the more crumpet-like banh can popular further south along the coast in Phan Thiet and Nha Trang and completely different than the banh canh (spelt with an h) in the south, which is a soup.
In general, further back in time, banh can is thought to have been brought to Vietnam by Cham immigrants, who cooked the battered crumpets in tiny clay pots. One thing we did learn on our quest was that all those mysteries surrounding practically everything in Vietnam, and in particular food, come not from a desire to be secretive, but from losing so very much due to the war; for some families everything was lost, not just possessions and paperwork, but untold stories of past generations. They are not secrets; it’s just that nobody knows.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 24th July, 2014.