Asia’s Tastiest Dumpling At Quan Ca Can
Meet Asia’s tastiest dumpling…
It’s a hefty package of meat and quail eggs encased in a fluffy flour casing, a bundle that’s known in Vietnam as banh bao.
This Chowzter award-winning dumpling can be found at Quan Ca Can, a humble open air restaurant on the edge of a small park in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 5.
Banh bao is similar to China’s pao or baozi. But better, obviously. Because in the 10 centuries since Vietnam repelled their Chinese rulers, they’ve improved on the Chinese recipes that were left behind, fluttering forlornly in the breeze. (Well, one imagines them fluttering forlornly but they were probably just memorised.)
Mr Hung, the owner of Quan Ca Can, has made further improvements on the traditional Vietnamese banh bao filling of spiced pork and quail egg, experimenting with beef, chicken, vegetarian, and dessert fillings.
Even though his personal favourite is the traditional banh bao, which he called prosaically “normal banh bao” in Vietnamese, the most popular banh bao at Quan Ca Can is the dac biet, the “special” banh bao filled with a mix of pork, chicken, char siu and quail egg.
The story of Quan Ca Can is a sweeping tale that spans the globe.
Mr Than, the founder, first began serving banh bao and hu tieu (a pork and prawn noodle soup) in 1967, when the Vietnam War was in full swing. The small food stall was (and still is) a short walk from the St Joan Of Arc Church that the Catholic South Vietnam Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem used to attend.
In 1979, four years after the end of the Vietnam War, Mr Than emigrated to Canada, leaving his nephew in charge of the restaurant.
That nephew, Mr Hung, is still in charge today, and still passionate about the banh bao and the wheat noodles his team still makes by hand every day.
Like many long-time Vietnamese food vendors, Mr Hung gets quite animated when questioned about the history and techniques of his dishes. Mid-way through our chat, Mr Hung raced off to serve us one of everything that he makes.
There have been some changes at Quan Ca Can over the years.
In 1975, when the Communist North Vietnam won the war, the government assumed ownership of all businesses throughout the newly unified country. Quan Ca Can was allowed to continue trading, with Mr Hung at the helm, during the years known as the coupon era, when coupons were required for nearly every aspect of daily life and the government set limits on how much food individuals and businesses could buy.
When that era ended, around the time of the doi moi (renovation) economy policies of 1986, the local authorities cut a deal with Quan Ca Can. They, the local officials, would operate the stall in the mornings and Mr Hung and his family could manage things in the afternoon.
That system is still in place today, although government officials no longer run the place personally in the morning, people with “connections” do. The food is different in the mornings and Mr Hung and his handmade banh bao and noodles aren’t available until after 12.30pm.
Mr Hung prides himself on using fresh ingredients. He doesn’t refrigerate anything, he tells us. When a batch of banh bao sells out, a new one is made. Mr Hung’s ban bao are certainly not stored overnight and sold the next day.
As well as banh bao, Quan Ca Can also does a delicious hu tieu My Tho, the Mekong Delta version of a Cambodian dish called kuy teav. The quality of the ingredients of Quan Ca Can’s hu tieu really stand out, with melt-in-the-mouth pork ribs, lean char siu, ground pork, fresh prawns, bok choy and delicious hand-made wheat noodles.
It’s also a very big bowl of soup. You need to come hungry to Quan Ca Can if you want to sample the banh bao, the hu tieu…. and the xoi la sen, royal sticky rice cakes.
Mr Hung created his version of xoi la sen about five years ago, and it’s become one of his most popular items, he told us when we met him to present him his Chowzter* award this week.
Char siu, Chinese sausage, baby prawns, lotus seeds and a delicious gravy are wrapped in pandan-scented sticky rice, then wrapped in banana leaf, then wrapped in a lotus leaf and then steamed. The package is then unwrapped, unwrapped again and attacked with spoons. It is delicious … and quite filling.
But back to Asia’s tastiest dumplings.
The banh bao menu is extensive as far as banh bao menus go. The menu is also quite dilapidated, which is the sign of a very successful restaurant in Vietnam.
The options are: beef and egg; vegetarian; char siu; and the “special”, with a mix of pork, char siu, chicken and egg. There are also two dessert banh bao, the first filled with a mustard-yellow custard made with egg and coconut milk, the second a not-too-sweet taro mix, suitable for vegans.
The secret to the ultimate banh bao experience, Mr Hung tells us, is to peel off the outer layer of the fluffy white dough. You can only do this with hand-made banh bao, he says.
Peeling the skin off, he says, stops the banh bao dough from getting stuck between your teeth.
Ah, the Vietnamese, always so practical, especially when it comes to food.
But Quan Ca Can’s story doesn’t end there, with the non-teeth sticking banh bao dough.
The original owner of the restaurant, Mr Hung’s Uncle Than, set up shop in his new home of Montreal. Ong Ca Can (Grandfather Ca Can) still operates today, although as a much more upmarket affair than the original in Ho Chi Minh City.
Xinh chao from Ho Chi Minh City, Ong Ca Can!
Try the award-winning banh bao at Quan Ca Can, corner of Hung Vuong and Nguyen Tri Phuong, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. From 12.30pm to 2am.
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3 years ago