Rice paper is a common ingredient in Vietnam, used for almost everything.
Equally common is the rice paper salad wrap, where all types of ingredients and salad end up rolled into firm delicious rolls. But last week I found an amazing salad made from rice paper itself. Not as a wrap….as an actual salad.
It's a salad that's actually a bit 'weird'.
Not 'nasty' weird, like strange animal bits or 'unrecognisable', but just 'not normally used in a salad' type of weird.
Sometimes even jaded old cooks like myself suffer from whiplash when walking the streets of Saigon.
Finding, watching and eating this rice paper salad was one of those times.
Ho Chi Minh City has some very unique treats. I wasn't drawn to the city on the first few visits, but it's working its magic on me at last, and each trip to the 'big smoke' gives me a little more insight and another reason to go back for another 'stickybeak', as we say in Australia.
Being a bit of a newbie here, I stay in different parts of the city to get a feel for what's up.
Last 4 visits have been different parts of District 1, where the expats are too proud (or too 'over it') to visit.
Like them, I never shop at Ben Thanh market itself, because the price basically triples if you weren't born upcountry. Surrounding Ben Thanh market though, there's a few interesting local street-food dishes on offer.
The vendors are a bit surly for my taste, probably due to a never-ending parade of zombified, suspicious tourists with tightly zipped fanny-packs walking rudely past.
Last trip we stopped by a lady who was mixing up sheets of plasticky looking see-through stuff, and on closer inspection, it turned out to be thin, transparent sheets of dry rice paper , cut into wide strips.
It WAS actually a rice paper salad. Not a rice paper salad wrap, or fresh spring roll.
The dried rice paper was actually the base of the salad itself. I never would have thought of that.
We had to try one. The name of the dish is "banh trang tron" and it's very tasty.
Rice paper is mixed by hand with shredded sour green mango, some shredded dried squid, then dry chilli flakes, vietnamese mint (ram leaf). It's seasoned with lime or cumquat juice and dried shrimp salt.
The icing on the cake?
You get asked if you'd like a semi preserved whole egg thrown in and mixed up a bit.
This isn't exactly fine dining.
Standing on an Asian megacity street corner, sweat dripping down your nose eating salad our of a plastic bag with a wooden skewer could be considered performance art.
Add the motorbike-dodging and ongoing protection of shoulder bags, cellphones and wallets from drive-by criminals, it becomes almost surreal.
But without a doubt, this is a tasty textural treat with plenty of imagination and a dash of heart and soul thrown in for good measure.
This dish didn't seduce soldiers during the American war, nor did it nurture the children of the revolution.
It doesn't feature on royal Hue menus from centuries ago, nor is it translated from ancient texts.
It's actually a pretty new addition to the local food scene, showing up in the last 15 years, so it shows that Vietnamese food is alive and well, still developing and taking hard left turns from 'normal' heritage food and the much talked-about French influence.
If you get to Ho Chi Minh City, look for it. This salad is well worth a try.
If you're not planning to visit Saigon anytime soon, make it at home.
These photos will show you how to do it.
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OK, off for some more adventures.