By Stett Holbrook
DOLLAR for dollar, Vietnamese food is one of the best deals around. A big bowl of pho or bun bo hue will only set you back $7 or $8. Even cheaper are banh mi, Vietnamese sandwiches that go for about $2. But banh mi shops offer other kinds of cheap eats that are often delicious but probably go untried by most non-Vietnamese because it's hard to figure out what the hell they are. These grab-and-go snacks are known collectively as "an choi" and are great for a quick breakfast or lunch because they're pre-made, highly portable and loaded with carbohydrates for quick energy.
In addition to being cheap and good, many of these snacks are beautiful to look at, too. But for the uninitiated, they're like the proverbial box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.
Twenty-two-year-old Dakao in downtown San Jose has been feeding starving SJSU students and other aficionados of cheap Vietnamese food for years with its banh mi, rice plates and other Vietnamese standards. The restaurant is also one of Silicon Valley's premier sources for an choi.
Dakao's front counter is crowded with a staggering array of the cellophane-wrapped treats and snacks. Some of the items like barbecue pork over rice or shrimp spring rolls are self-evident because you can see what's inside, but many are inscrutable rice balls and banana leaf–wrapped mysteries.
Most of these snacks fall into one of four categories: "banh," "xoi," "che" and "cha." Banh means cake, and in this case the cakes are made from rice flour, sticky rice, tapioca flour or wheat flour. Xoi (pronounced "soy") simply means sticky rice, and these snacks generally combine rice with fruit or fruit pastes, coconut milk and sweetened ground peanuts. Che (pronounced "chay-ah," with a down note on the "ah") means dessert, and these treats are usually served in clear plastic cups filled with a creamy, coconut-milk base and flavored with fruit and tapioca, taro or rice balls. They're pretty easy to figure out because you can see what they consist of. Cha means sausage.
When it comes to ordering, pointing and asking "What's this?" and "What's that?" can be hard because of language barriers. So here, then, is a quick guide to some of the most popular and commonly available Vietnamese snack foods. Think of this as an edible glossary. (I compiled this list from Dakao, but most Silicon Valley banh mi restaurants will have many of these same items, although sometimes in slightly different forms.) Che xoi khoai mon Sweetened coconut milk with taro balls.
Banh bao Looking like giant dumplings, these steamed wheat-flour rolls are generally filled with savory ingredients like sausage, ground pork and a boiled egg. Think of them as a Vietnamese version of an Egg McMuffin. Best when heated slightly before eating.
Banh bay This silken, rubbery little patty is made with rice flour and filled with a layer of pressed pork.
Banh bo Chunks of white sticky rice and coconut milk that have been fermented slightly to give them a pleasing sweet tang.
Banh cam Vietnamese donut holes made with wheat flour and covered with caramelized sugar and sesame seeds. They often have a filling like sweet mung bean paste. Very good.
Banh chuoi This banana-based snack takes two forms: as a kind of thick gelatinous banana cake, or cooked with sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet red beans and wrapped mummy-style in banana or coconut leaves. Both are quite good.
Banh gio These distinctive, pyramid-shaped snacks are wrapped in banana leaves and made with steamed rice flour filled with savory ingredients like ground pork and mushroom. Banh it looks just like banh gio but is generally filled with sweet ingredients like fruit and beans.
Banh khuc Sticky rice filled with a hamlike purée formed into a plump disc. Banh tet A tamale-looking roll wrapped in banana leaves and tied with red string that is something of a Vietnamese sushi roll, only it's made with sticky rice, sweet red beans and bananas. It can be made with savory ingredients, too. This is traditionally served during Vietnamese new year celebrations. The square version is called banh chung and comes from north Vietnam. Cha lua Wrapped in banana leaves or aluminum foil, this is a super burrito-size log of steamed pork sausage.
Banh Hue Thin pork sausage wrapped in banana leaves that's a smaller version of cha lua.
Xoi banh phong This is a thin rice crepe filled with sticky rice and sweet fruit pastes.
Xoi ladua Sticky rice with sweet mung bean paste. It tastes better than it sounds.
Xoi nep than Literally "sticky charcoal grain rice," this snack is made with beautiful black grain rice and sweetened mung bean paste. (Thanks to Hanna Pham, owner of 19 Market restaurant in San Jose, for help with translations)
Address: 98 E. San Salvador, San Jose
Hours: 6am–9pm Mon–Sat, and 6am–8pm Sun
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