Hanoi’s banana-leaf-wrapped wonder

By Hoang Hoang   June 27, 2016 | 11:20 pm PT
Having been part of Hanoian life for generations, ‘banh gio’ can wordlessly tell you more about the charisma of this ancient town than any travel guide.

One late Hanoi afternoon, you happen to find yourself lost in the chilly winter breeze. You see a small stall on the side of the street. People, from young to old, from rich to poor, sit huddled together on beat-up plastic stools; steamy packages in the palms. Curious, you walk closer just to see them carefully peel off the shiny, dripping banana leaf. What is revealed is a soft, cloudy, pudding-like cake with an enchanting smell strong enough to wake even a man who has spent days on his sick bed. You stop and stare, then slowly bend down to get another whiff of this hideous, unknown scent. “Do you want to get some ‘banh gio’?” the owner gently asks.

‘Banh gio’ originated in northern Vietnam, and is an exotic treat that represents the characteristics of this very charming region. ‘Banh gio’ consists of a portion of finely ground rice powder that still has the lingering scent of the paddy fields after a prosperous season, and carefully conceals a mixture of minced pork with black mushrooms and wood ear fungus, all wrapped tightly in banana leaf.

For ‘banh gio’ to be cooked, it has to be steamed. The hungry stomachs of late-coming customers growl as they wait. But “Rome was not built in a day”, so the longer you wait, the more precious the moment you receive the hot, sleek, steamy ‘banh gio’ is.

All the ingredients inside ‘Banh Gio’ collide together and astonish each other to create an irresistable taste. The sexy, fatty flavor of the pork and the classy, luxurious richness of the black mushroom mixed with wood ear fungus is trapped inside and absorbed through the thick layer of rice powder, creating a mouth-watering taste. The sheet of banana leaf does not only serve as a wrapper but adds a slightly natural green color to ‘banh gio’ and works to lock away the moisture, the juiciness and the booming flavors inside, like a shy traditional Hanoian woman, discreet but attractive. When it comes to the part where the excited customer opens that little package, all those delicate wonders joyfully jump out to create, what it is truely, a taste to remember.

Often eaten with a sprinkle of hot sauce, sometimes accompanied optionally by ‘gio lua’- the Vietnamese version of sausage - or pickled cucumber, a portion of ‘banh gio’ is guaranteed to satisfy the protesting hunger inside your stomach.

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