Photo: Burning incense at a Cholon pagoda.

Banh bao

A dietary mainstay

Banh bao

Banh bao look more like big Chinese dumplings than something Vietnamese. Not to be confused with the also popular banh mi, banh bao does actually have Chinese roots, being introduced to the country by Cantonese immigrants. But the buns have become a dietary mainstay in Saigon, where they can be found sold by street vendors, convenience stores, and even Buddhist temples.

Banh bao is a simple but delicious food; it’s basically a large, round dumpling filled with various ingredients, such as pork, sausage mushrooms and onions. The most popular version in Saigon is a mixture of ground pork, Chinese sausage, and hard-boiled quail eggs. The ground pork is formed into a meatball and then the eggs and chunks of sausage are added. The mixture is then wrapped in a slightly sweetened flour dumpling and steamed to perfection. On the street, banh bao is served directly out of the steamer so you’ll want to give it some time to cool before you dig in, or you may burn your mouth. I like to make a hole in the side of my bun to help let off some of the steam.

If you’re on a hunt for banh bao you won’t have to look far, as they are one of the more common street foods in Saigon. The street carts are generally clearly labelled and prominently display prepared buns on a glass shelf.

They also are identifiable by the large steamer that the cart, usually located right next to the curb, supports; this is because banh bao is Saigon’s fastest food, as they are just pulled straight from the steamer. Pull up next to one of these carts on your motorbike, state your quantity, and you’ll get your food and be on your way quicker than any drive through service you’d find in the West.

Being as popular and easy to make as it is, you’ll find plenty of other places where banh bao is available, the most common of which is inside glass steamers located within Vietnamese convenience stores. I generally stay away from these versions, as they don’t seem to be quite as hot when you get them and they have been the origin for all of the ‘I got sick from eating/found something weird inside my banh bao’ stories I have heard. But in general they are as safe as any other food in the country and the easiest food to grab if you’re in a hurry.

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Last updated on 27th December, 2015.

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