Banh tam bi or ‘silkworm cake’ is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s rarer delicacies, and although its name can make it sound daunting the reality is delicious. It’s made up of a range of ingredients that tend to sit in glass and metal bowls behind a typical street food display: white silkworm-shaped noodles next to barbequed pork, shredded pork rind, fresh herbs and cucumber. The dish comes from the Mekong Delta town of Bac Lieu, and it somehow manages to tread the thin line between dessert and savoury meal, making it not only one of the city’s rarest foods but also one of its most exciting.
There are three well-known street food restaurants that sell banh tam bi in Ho Chi Minh City. Everyone I ask recommends one of these three, so I take a tour to all three shops and end up at Banh Tam Bi To Chau (271 Nguyen Trai, Q1). This shop is almost hidden, sitting back from the street with plenty of room to park the bike. I pull up in front of the display, with its large red letters, and walk over to the stand. They sell a number of dishes other than banh tam bi here, and the wide array of relative ingredients are all laid out ready to eat, like a strange buffet of dishes that I’ve never seen before. I spot coconut cream and my mouth begins to water — it’s time to make my order.
Like many of Ho Chi Minh City’s street food restaurants, the food is arranged at the front of the restaurant and the seating extends behind it. I take a seat in a wide, softly-lit room lined with mirrors. There are two types of chilli on the table, one with whole fresh chunks sitting in soy sauce and the other full of the garlic-chilli Saigon favourite, tuong ot toi. Next to the condiments are the regular staples — chopsticks and dessert spoons, napkins and the obligatory toothpicks.
Same Dish, Different Styles
Banh tam bi varies depending on where you eat it, but the basic ingredients are always the same; tapioca-based noodles that are shorter, silky and fat like their namesake, sitting atop an enticing mound of fresh cucumber, Vietnamese mint and sweet basil. A ladleful of rich coconut cream follows, adding richness to an otherwise light plate.
Little strips of barbecued pork and long, thin loops of glistening pig skin are laid over the noodles, followed by do chua and those token tiny pieces of deep fried red onion, or hanh phi, that adds a crispness to savoury Vietnamese dishes. The dish is garnished with a delicate spoonful of spring onions and dressed with nuoc mam, which adds a fresh sweetness and lifts the flavour of the entire dish.
Eyeing the two pots of chilli beside my plate, I order a mug of iced tea with my food and add a few spoonfuls of spice to my coconut cream. Banh tam bi is just as delicious if you try each element separately, as it is mixed together. The noodles have a glutinous, almost gooey texture, as you would expect from tapioca, and go nicely with the soft coconut cream.
I’m usually not a fan of pork rind, but in this dish it is grated into slim strips, almost like glass noodles. It adds to the overall texture, mingling well with the crunch of the cucumber and the fragrant mint and basil. Something I love about Vietnamese food is its distinctive freshness, stemming from the wide range of herbs and vegetables that appear in almost every dish here.
You can eat banh tam bi at any time during the day — every meal and every dessert is an excuse for a plate or two. The dish is not heavy but it is filling; not savoury but not completely sweet. Some vendors will add peanuts to the garnish for a nutty twist, and others will replace the do chua with a sprinkling of Vietnamese coriander.
Banh Tam Bi To Chau is at 271 Nguyen Trai, Q1, HCMC. A bowl of banh tam bi costs VND40,000