True to the name, the cake is thin and round, a dough of powdered rice and manioc (cassava), that gets its shape from the saucer it's steamed in.
Vietnamese rank the cuisine of Hue, their former imperial capital, as the country's most refined. However, in this gloriously underdeveloped outpost of traditional lifestyles, travelers often have to choose between bland hotel fare, pseudo-historic tourist traps and gritty street stalls.
The best and quickest way to encounter the subtle approach and small portions spawned by a courtly 19th-century culture may be through readily available snacks.
In Hue's most popular between-meals treat, the banh beo and its side dishes—rice flour, fish sauce and shrimp meat—are raised to truly regal heights.
Banh beo is sometimes translated as "water fern cake," but "fern-shaped cake" would be more accurate. And the plant in question is actually a thin, perfectly round water lily found on the surface of many ponds—and most likely favored by landscapers of the elegant noble estates around Hue.
True to the name, the cake is thin and round, a dough of powdered rice and manioc (cassava), that gets its shape from the saucer it's steamed in. Bits of crumbled shrimp and fried pieces of pork skin are added for decoration, taste and texture, and a light fish sauce tops it off.
But what is not as clear about the derivation is whether the lineage of the dish is "imperial," as is claimed for most everything in this former feudal seat of the last Vietnamese dynasty.
Boi Tran, a renowned local painter who doubles as a chef, votes no: "It's just a humble snack." Yes, counters Tran Thi Bao Ngan, speaking for a family that cooks up hundreds of banh beo each day at their restaurant, Banh Beo Huong Cung An Dinh. "The Hue kings must have enjoyed this sort of thing, which is very small and delicate," she says.
Yet others suggest that any dishes served near or around banana leaves must be a legacy of the ancient Cham culture that once dominated Central Vietnam.
In olden times, the banh beo were probably carted around the street by peddlers slinging bamboo poles over one shoulder. Today, the establishments that feature the snack are hardly more permanent—small dives barely removed from the street, some furnished with full tables but others just with the tiny stools that keep Vietnamese in touch with their sidewalk roots.
And, even though the banh beo will be what's advertised on the signboard or awning, the dish—usually served a dozen at a time—often is the centerpiece for an array of rolls and buns, available almost any time of the day, perfect for breakfast or late-night after-drinks nibbling. But the snack is favored by Hue residents around tea time, from 3 p.m. on. If carried away, it can also double as the evening meal.
The many pastry variations include banh uot, ultra-thin rice pancakes topped with fried shallots; banh nam, another Hue specialty, a gooey rice concoction grilled inside banana leaf; and banh ramit, a cholesterol kicker made of fried dough topped with icing of pork fat. Call it all the Vietnamese version of dim sum—as so much about Hue's traditions are markedly Chinese in influence—except that there's no requirement to accompany anything with tea. A wide range of beverages are acceptable, though one favored by many is indeed a tea of sorts, served cold and
infused with ginger.
As one restaurant menu puts it, "Here we go! Fancy the special Hue seasonings to single bit of the Banh Beo!"
Everything about the banh beo should work harmoniously in a single bite: the soft but not too rubbery consistency of the steamed dough (made creamier by bits of melted lard), the freshness of the shrimp meat (best if fished from a nearby lagoon), the crunchiness of the cracklings, and—what most veteran local snackers stress—the unique balance of the sauce dribbled over everything, where the fish sauce plus sugar should somehow meld everything in a lingering flavor that isn't the slightest bit fishy or sugary yet hints of dried shrimp.
But lest aficionados get too carried away with fine distinctions, local guide Phan Quoc Vinh reminds, "This is what you call our comfort food, something we enjoy since we are babies."
Goc Banh Beo Ba Cu, 93/5 Phan Dinh Phung
Banh Beo Huong Cung An Dinh, 93/9 Phan Dinh Phung
These are two barely covered outdoor eateries strung along an alley alongside the restored An Dinh palace in Hue's more modern downtown, south of the Citadel and the Perfume River. Come early enough to the latter and a peek into the large, open kitchen will reveal the entire process of mixing, stuffing and topping all the popular types of banh.
Hang Me, 45 Vo Thi Sau St.
This is one of three very popular spots, two adjoining, on a street within walking distance of Hue's backpackers' center. The hygiene, and hype, are more evolved here, including menus in English. But the banh beo didn't seem quite as fresh.