Two main cultural forces influenced the development of Vietnamese cuisine over history. Centuries of Chinese occupation brought in noodles, roast meats and steamed buns, among others. Decades of French colonialization led to the perfection of the stuffed baguette, giving the world bánh mì, as well as the signature coffee with condensed milk. Notably, phở was born out of the interaction between the French and Chinese in the 20th century.
However, there is one uniquely rice-based food product from Vietnam that cannot be found anywhere else: rice paper (bánh tráng).
Rice paper origins
Similar to bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls), rice paper is made from a rice flour-based batter, steamed on a piece of cloth stretching on top of a boiling water pot. The cooked rice sheets are then placed on a bamboo mat to dry in the sun, which gives them their weaving patterns. Rice paper is thin (almost transparent) and crackly, but once hydrated it becomes chewy and pliable, which can be used as wrappers for many Vietnamese iconic dishes, such as spring rolls (chả giò) and summer rolls (also known as salad rolls or gỏi cuốn).
Legend has it that because rice paper was easy to store and quick to prepare, it was the staple food for the Tây Sơn dynasty’s soldiers who were on their way to the war field in the 18th century. It eventually followed the troops to their victory in the Đống Đa battle and was served during the celebration. Thus, the name “bánh đa” came about in Northern Vietnam.
Most sources indicated that rice paper originated in Bình Định, where it is considered a major carbohydrate source. When people in Central Vietnam travelled southward, they brought their specialty with them. Since then, more variations of rice paper popped up and became a mainstay in many provinces in the region. Tây Ninh is known for its moist rice paper that has been dried overnight to absorb the dew, while Bến Tre incorporates coconut milk into the batter. Across the three regions, different ingredients are added to rice paper, but the most basic, made from rice flour, salt and water, remains the most versatile.
Spring rolls (Chả giò/Nem rán)
The use of rice paper as wrappers sets Vietnamese spring rolls apart from the Chinese versions, which use wheat-based wrappers. Recipes vary across regions and households, but common ingredients in the filling include ground pork, wood-ear mushrooms, mung bean vermicelli and jicama. All are rolled up in a sheet of moistened rice paper and deep-fried.
Spring rolls can be eaten as appetizers or paired with rice vermicelli, herbs and dipping fish sauce to make spring roll vermicelli bowl (bún chả giò) for a main course.
Summer rolls or salad rolls (Gỏi cuốn & bò bía)
It’s easy for foreigners to confuse gỏi cuốn and bò bía, as both are fresh rice paper rolls with a hoisin dipping sauce. The key difference is in the filling.
For gỏi cuốn, rice vermicelli, pork belly slices, prawns, bean sprouts and mixed herbs are rolled into a moistened rice paper sheet. In addition to hoisin sauce, one can also come across fermented fish paste dipping sauce, which is saltier and more pungent.
Bò bía, on the other hand, consists of sliced jicama, Chinese sausage, shredded omelet, dried small shrimps and lettuce. It’s smaller and sweeter than gỏi cuốn.
Meat platter rolls
All over Vietnam, rice paper is used as a vessel to hold the ingredients of a meat platter together. While the type of meat and methods of preparation vary, the basic components include meat (or fish), rice vermicelli, raw vegetables, herbs and a dipping sauce.
Often, the setup resembles a DIY station that allows eaters to choose the ingredients and complete the rolls by themselves. This makes for a fun communal dining experience.
Mixed rice paper salad (Bánh tráng trộn)
Bánh tráng trộn has been an uber-popular street snack for the last decade or so in Vietnam. The trend is believed to start from Tây Ninh, where people repurpose rice paper scraps by mixing them with dried shrimp salt and chili oil. It was so appetizing that the dish made its way into Saigon and vendors began to embellish the humble rice paper with more ingredients such as beef jerky, crispy fried shallots and mayonnaise.
You can spot mixed rice paper salad vendors on many Saigon streets nowadays, especially those near schools or universities, as this is a beloved snack for students.
Grilled rice paper (Bánh tráng nướng)
Coined as Vietnamese pizza, bánh tráng nướng consists of dried shrimps, eggs, pork floss and other toppings on a rice paper sheet, grilled until crisp on a charcoal stove. To garnish, vendors add chili sauce and mayonnaise.
This dish hails from Đà Lạt, a city in Vietnam’s central highlands with a cool climate. Sitting beside a charcoal stove and munching on crispy rice paper in the chilly weather is a must for any visitors to this charming destination.
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt