In general, Vietnamese cuisine looks pretty on the plate. The use of fresh herbs and chili on a white backsheet of rice or noodles creates a green, red and white kaleidoscope that speaks notes of health, heat and satiation. There is the golden promise of salt and sea delivered by fish sauce, as a dip or a dressing. Turmeric, tomato and annatto in Vietnamese cooking add the finishing flare of a sunset when the dish comes to table. An edible work of art, some would say.
However, it doesn't matter what one does with some food; it's just never going to look good. Bland, lumpish and yuck are three words one might utter upon sighting the Hanoi steamed meat pie called bánh giò. Resembling a pale green splat of wobbling muck, this large dumpling's appearance is hardly improved by a good striping of hot sauce or the oily green leaf it comes served on.
But thankfully, as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Bánh giò is a variation on a theme in Vietnamese cuisine, a blend of protein and carbohydrate wrapped in a leaf. The gooey gelatinous exterior is made with a mix of rice flour, tapioca starch and pork stock, no doubt a process involving rigorous stirring to keep powdery lumps from forming. Placed inside the base of a banana leaf pocket, this dough is followed in by a mix of sauteed seasoned pork mince, shallots and wood-ear mushrooms before more dough is spooned in to enclose the meat mixture. The banana leaf pocket is sealed shut in the shape of a pyramid and steaming then occurs. While still hot, the parcels are placed in large rattan baskets under sheets of insulating plastic and transported from kitchen to pavement for sale.
My vendor in Hanoi's Old Quarter was rather coy when I asked her how many she sells a day but at a guess, she prepares several dozen pies each day. On my visits lately, they have been flying out of their baskets to drive-by and sit-down customers alike. For seated patrons, the vendor unwraps the parcel, cutting away any superfluous leaf before passing it over on a plastic plate. Chili sauce in a squirt bottle and sides of peppery beef sausage (giò bò) are offered and, before long, once the spoon has pierced the dough to reveal the luscious interior, there is a steaming mini-volcano oozing about on the plate.
At every point, bánh giò may look like ugly food but, on the palate, this vendor's version is sublime.
16 Đào Duy Từ St,
Old Quarter, Hanoi
(next to the Time Hotel)