Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Vietnamese Food that isn't Pho - A recipe for Bánh Bao

Being a non-Caucasian in America, I often get asked what my ethnic background is.  When the question is phrased as something less vague than "Where are you from?" (which normally prompts me to respond, "Maryland," because I now live in New Jersey and I am surrounded by the Jersey born-and-bred), I tell people that I am Vietnamese.  More than 90% of the time, the response I get is, "Oh my god, I love pho!"  The last word is always pronounced "foe."

I find it very weird.  Can you imagine if you told someone you have an Italian background the person replied, "Cool, I love spaghetti!"  It's strange.  There is so much more to my heritage and cultural background than phở, which, by the way, is pronounced "fuh-ah?"  Because Vietnamese is a tonal language, "phở" is pronounced like a question and as if the word had two syllables.

So instead of sharing a recipe for a Vietnamese noodle soup like bun bo hue or pho, today I want to share with you how to make Bánh Bao.  First, of course, I will tell you what it is.  Think of a stereotypical pork bun you get in Chinatown.  Now imagine that the doughy outside is fluffy and light and the inside has ground pork, eggs, and vegetables.  That is a bánh bao.

When I was growing up, this could serve as my breakfast, a snack food, or lunch.  The filling can be changed to be whatever you want, but the standard bánh bao has a piece of hard boiled egg, some ground meat, and normally lap xuong (also known as Chinese sausage, for all you non-Asians).  I love them.  They're nutritious and healthy, and once you make them, you can store them in the freezer for at least a month, steaming them in the microwave for about a minute whenever you want to eat one.

While writing this recipe, I was faced, yet again, with the problem of transcribing a Vietnamese family recipe into a recipe that others can follow.  On one hand, I was lucky that this recipe is one of the ones that my mother actually has written down, since most things she makes from memory.  On the other hand, the notes she had written read something like this, "half a bowl of milk, add to the flour until it feels right.  If it doesn't feel good, add more milk" and "1/4 bowl of sugar, if you like it sweeter (it tastes better like this)."  I had to ask my mother exactly what "one bowl" measures out to.  Thankfully, we made these together and I could get some measurements down for you.