The weather suddenly turn gray and grim, with temperatures that bordered on making it necessary to turn the furnace on. I fought against the changing seasons by coking food that reminded me of warmer times. This morning, I thawed one of the daikon and rice cake loafs from last week. My goal was to to recreate a street food snack we had in Saigon last January.
My husband and I ventured to Cholon (Chinatown) with our friends Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman of Eating Asia. Dave is a professional photographer and wandered off on his own. Robyn, Rory and I walked the market and picked up some cool house wares. While we waited for Dave to meet us, we took in the scene.
Cholon always looks like something exploded. People are in a hurry, buying and selling. It’s packed and all business. Transactions happen fast. It’s no nonsense so you have to know what you want before you go.
The three of reviewed the street food options a couple of times before Robyn settled on some sticky rice and fruit. I spotted a man making bot chien (literally fried dough, which sounds utterly blah but it is darn good) on a flat top. He was doing a brisk business and having a good time chatting with customers. His sizzling cart emanated fabulous fragrance.
I wanted this street food because the versions I’d had in the United States (at a couple of dim sum houses, actually) were dull and it had been a while since I made it myself. I stepped up and put in my order.
“Do you want egg?” he asked. No, I didn’t need the extra calories at that moment; we’d been eating a lot and dinner wasn’t far away. I wanted to watch him cook. He let me take photos too. He worked quickly with dexterity. When I asked him what kind of cooking oil he used, he smiled and said, “It looks and smells good, doesn’t it. What is it? Pork fat!” He and I both cracked up with delight. Robyn, Rory and I took turns eating up the pile of fried deliciousness.
The pork fat made a lovely difference in the flavor of what otherwise is a pretty simple food. This dish is a Chinese-Vietnamese thing, and usually the cakes are made of just rice flour and starch – no daikon or little bits of sausage, mushroom or dried shrimp. I had my homemade daikon rice cakes and today, I swapped it out for a more luxe rendition. I gave it a dusting of cornstarch since what I had on hand was on the soft side.
I always keep chunks of fatback in my freezer so I thawed some and cut it to the size of very large peas. My goal was to render it into little fried pork fat croutons (top mo in Vietnamese). The rendered fat would be used to fry the cakes and the lardons became a garnish of sorts.
Today, I added the egg for extra richness. As with the Cholon vendor’s rendition, I served it with daikon carrot pickle (the same one used for banh mi) and a soy sauce-based sauce with chiles or sriracha (I used the Singapore version that I made a while back).
Rory was napping when I whipped up this afternoon snack. He woke up to the cooking smells. “What are you up to?” he asked. I showed him what I’d made, then we grabbed chopsticks to eat our fill and create our own sunshine.
So I started out with a dim sum treat, discovered that it was freezable, and then turned it into a Vietnamese street food snack. That’s versatile cooking.
Crisp Daikon Rice Cakes with Egg and Scallion
Banh Cu Cai Bot Chien
Yields: 1 serving
- 6 ounces (180g) daikon and rice cake
- Cornstarch for dusting
- 1 large or jumbo egg
- 1/4 teaspoon fish sauce, or 2 generous pinches of salt
- 1 generous pinch of black pepper
- 1 green onion, chopped
- 1 ounce (30 g) diced pork fat or thick-cut bacon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dark soy sauce, or 1 teaspoon regular soy sauce plus 1/2 teaspoon dark mollasses
- 3/4 teaspoon unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon Sriracha sauce, homemade or store bought
- Small handful of daikon and carrot pickle (do chua)
- Cut the daikon rice cake into pieces the size of dominos and a good 1/2 inch thick. Lightly coat with the cornstarch, then set aside.
- Beat the egg with the fish sauce (or salt) and pepper. Then stir in all but 1 tablespoon of the scallion. Set aside.
- Heat half the fat in a skillet over medium heat. Let it render into liquid and wait for it to turn light golden; adjust the heat as needed. (If you fear the fat burning, remove and return it later.) Raise the heat to medium-high then add the radish rice cakes. Let them fry, undisturbed, for 2 to 3 minutes, until crisp and golden brown. They’ll stick at first but will eventually release. Flip over to brown the other side.
- While the cakes fry, combine both kinds of soy sauces, vinegar, sugar and sriracha to make the dipping sauce. Taste and adjust the flavor to ensure a savory-sweet-tangy-spicy finish. Set aside.
- Add the remaining fat to the skillet, then decrease the heat to medium. Allow the fat to render and the cakes to turn a rich brown before pouring in the egg in a wide circle. Let set for about 5 seconds, then use a spatula to repeatedly turn and stir the cakes so that they get coated with the egg. Once the egg has set and cooked through, about 45 seconds, turn off the heat. Add the remaining green onion and let it wilt slightly in the residual pan heat. Transfer to a serving plate or shallow bowl. Eat with the pickle and sauce. Pour the sauce over the cake and egg or use it to dip.