Editor’s note: Jordy Comes Alive, from the U.S., has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for three years and become a big fan of local food after spending time wandering around local alleys and markets to discover the culinary scene.
His piece has been titled, subtitled, and edited by Tuoi Tre News.
A little over three years ago, I moved from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City.
On my first day, I booked a hotel for a month to explore the Vietnamese neighborhoods I would possibly reside in.
I tried bột chiên and I broke a plastic stool
On my third day around dinner time, I found myself on Phan Van Han Street in Binh Thanh District, a quarter-mile-long street loaded with shophouse cafés and packed with food carts.
It's not touristy but rather a local food paradise that seems to cater to students and workers alike.
The street won me over on the first sniff with its bouquet of Vietnamese aromas all new to my naive nose.
I spied a woman standing above a circular black skillet frying up cubes that at first sort of reminded me of fat French fries. I could hear the sexy sound of the sizzle and being Pavlov’s favorite dog, I instinctively began to drool and whimper.
Like seeing a magic trick for the first time, wide-eyed I watched the woman crack two eggs above the slightly golden squares and began to scramble the eggs while incorporating the cubes.
I held back my urge to clap and whistle by shoving my tattooed hand into my pocket producing a wad of Vietnamese dong. I had no idea what the dish was or even how much it cost but it didn't matter as I waved my cash in front of the cook while nodding yes and grinning like an idiot. She smiled while ruffling through my money plucking out one 10K bill then two 5K banknotes.
The now-finished pancake-looking meal was topped off with fried-up green onions, daikon radish, and carrots, accompanied by a side of a mysterious black sauce with chunks of red peppers floating on top.
She motioned for me to sit down in front of her cart and I gingerly lowered my 111kg frame landing on a red plastic stool that had to be intended for the special people of Munchkinland.
The dish was placed on the table in front of me while I was sitting in a squat position. I grabbed my phone and instinctively began snapping photos. I can’t taste a meal unless I take its photo first.
I then Googled bột chiên to find exactly what I was about to shove into my food hole. Oh wow! Bột chiên is fried rice flour cakes with eggs all mixed together.
I grabbed my favorite weapon of choice - chopsticks - and went in to destroy this dish. I took my first bite without the sauce and began slowly processing what I was chewing on. I enthusiastically plucked a bigger cube and dunked it into the black sauce to experience the full bột chiên effect. I was slowly chewing and blissed out as my food high began to kick in.
I reached for the 3rd bite and heard what sounded like someone snapping their fingers twice, followed by a clap. The next sound I heard was the sickening thud of my body slamming to the ground, with a ton of laughter ensuing.
I was dazed and confused while lying on the ground, half under the tiny blue table while my head was facing the garbage can. I was on top of used napkins, wooden chopsticks, and chunks of fallen discarded food. I was covered in my meal wearing the bột chiên as if it were a trendy new Vietnamese fashion statement. I looked down the length of my body to discover my left foot was now marinating in that beautiful black sauce.
Horrified and blushing, I was pulled up by the crowd while being brushed off by strangers all chanting, 'Trời ơi!' I quickly split the scene of the crime guilty of embarrassment, humiliation, and obesity but worst I was in severe hunger pain.
I learned three things that night. First is bột chiên, from the second bite I had, was incredible, and I wanted to have another go at it while standing on my feet. Second is my gravity and my American fat ass were no match for Vietnamese street eating accommodations. And third, 'Trời ơi!' means 'Oh my God!'
|A supplied photo shows Jordy Comes Alive enjoying 'bột chiên' at a stall on Dien Bien Phu Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.|
Simplicity is beauty
In my hotel room that night, I did a little research. The birthplace of bột chiên is China but the dish migrated. It can now be found in a variety of creative interpretations incorporating regional ingredients throughout Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
In Vietnam, bột chiên has become a staple in street food cuisine and is extremely prevalent in Ho Chi Minh City, the tried and true Saigonese have grown up on it. It can now be found down alleyways, in markets, and on street corners any hour day or night being devoured by all walks of life.
By no means is bột chiên a complicated dish. In fact, I find its beauty in its simplicity.
Preparing it correctly and then pairing it with the perfect sauce on the side are where the best bột chiên chefs shine. It all begins with making a dough from rice flour, tapioca starch, water, vegetable oil, and salt. The dough is formed into a square and steamed, creating a 'rice flour cake' that’s then cut into matchbook-size chunks.
The dish is cooked on a large skillet liberally coating the pan with oil or lard. The jiggly pearl white cakes are fried until turning a light golden brown color.
Then two chicken eggs (sometimes duck eggs) are cracked over the golden rice nuggets, the yokes smashed and mixed with the rice cakes binding it all together. Now more oil is added and the cubes are fried a second time as the egg whites and yolks grow firm.
Green spring onion is either added to the mix or sometimes fried up separately and then placed on top before serving.
The pancake omelet is flipped and splashed repeatedly with even more oil, bringing the crisp factor right to the point before it would be considered burnt.
The bột chiên is plated and topped with green papaya or pickled daikon radish and carrots.
Occasionally, the dishes are finished off with a dusting of peanuts.
The dish is now 50 percent complete – bột chiên is served accompanied by a dark magical sauce. This special sauce, in my opinion, is critical to the dish and it seems each chef has their way with it. It’s black soy sauce mixed with sweet white vinegar, sugar, water, and red chili.
The entire dish calls for simple ingredients yet it seems complex firing off contradicting flavors.
|A dish of 'bột chiên' served at a stall on Dien Bien Phu Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
My favorite bột chiên spot
Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed bột chiên all over Ho Chi Minh City many times over. The last time I indulged was just a few weeks ago in a back-alleyway oasis located at 335 Dien Bien Phu Street in District 3. After three years of eating this dish, this cart has become my favorite.
I've passed this lady’s spot weekly for the past two years and I’ve eaten at her cart plenty of times. Her name is Chau Nam and she has been making bột chiên in this very spot for the past 30 years.
I asked her if she remembered the first time she ate bột chiên and she smiled when telling me her mother used to make it for her and she remembers always eating it. It was also her mother who taught her how to cook bột chiên.
After two years of eating her magnificent food, I now have a newfound respect for her. It made the bột chiên she was cooking for me even more special than it already was.
I asked her if she still ate bột chiên and she nodded yes, saying “bột chiên is very good, I eat it every day!”
|Jordy Comes Alive poses for a photo with the owner of a 'bột chiên' stall on Dien Bien Phu Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.|
I watched her cook, and her movements seem almost mechanical yet ballet-like with fluidity. It’s hypnotic.
Her bột chiên is extremely aromatic, piping hot, and fatty in the utmost yummy ways. The cakes are crispy on the outside (think Belgian style French fries) but the inside is warm, starchy, and slightly firm, which becomes creamy with chewing.
The mouthfeel is a big factor. Keeping this all together is the firm omelet egg offering up its yolky goodness with the green onion making it twinkle with flavor.
On a weird tip, at times, her bột chiên has a familiar aftertaste of French Toast. What completes the dish is the side of the special sauce. It's tangy and leans on the sweeter side with a tiny wizbang of heat and the bonus floating pickled radish and carrots. The dark sauce enhances the flavors of the egg while playing off the creaminess of the rice cakes.
I approach the tiny table and red plastic stool on the street. Over the last year, I have discovered yoga and have lost 31kg! I lower my smaller self cautiously and balance on top of the stool.
She hands over my food but before I dive in I had to make a saucy decision. Do I dunk or do I pour? Some people like to spill the sauce all over the dish, others, like me, dunk.
This snack always leaves me satisfied, it never fails. It’s something you eat once and then crave forever.
I press my feet hard against the street while slowly rising off the still intact stool, walking toward her and paying my 30K Vietnamese dong for my meal.
I snapped photos and shot some videos and could tell she appreciated the acknowledgment that I loved her style and bột chiên. She flashed me a smile when I said 'ngon quá' (so delicious) while looking for a Grab bike to take me back to where I live on Phan Van Han Street.
(US$1 = VND23,185)