Viet Nam News
By Minh Thu
Working late in the afternoon on an empty stomach always leads to a strong case of the munchies.
When hunger pangs strike and dinner time lies in the distant future, bánh rán lúc lắc, deep fried “shakable” sticky rice balls, is a popular snack in Hà Nội, especially for all who are short of cash. The delicious rice balls cost VNĐ1,000-3,000 each depending on the size. That means a bag of rice balls that costs just US$1 can fill your stomach and fuel the rest of your afternoon.
The cake’s name may strike the uninitiated as odd. It’s known as shakable because when you shake the cake, you can hear the sound of its stuffing rolling around inside. If you sit beside the vendor and watch the rice balls frying in a hot pan of oil, you can enjoy the snack with your tongue, eyes, nose and ears all at the same time.
In Hà Nội, you can find the snack at bakeries such as Gia Trịnh at 16A Lý Nam Đế Street, and small shops at street corners where sellers make and fry the rice balls and customers sit around waiting to indulge their snack cravings.
The main ingredients for making the cake are mochi, mung beans and sugar. Mochi is used for making the crust while mung beans are used for the stuffing.
The “shakable” rice ball is among the popular afternoon snacks for Vietnamese people. It is a cousin to bánh rán mặn (rice balls with stuffing of minced pork, onion, carrot, glass noodles and mushroom). But the shakable kind are sweet and vegetarian.
There are many variations including those coated with black and white sesame, caramel and sugar.
To make a basic shakable rice ball, the dough is neither too thick nor too thin. It’s firm enough to hold the filling while being soft, chewy and a little crunchy outside to satisfy your taste at first bite.
“The filling is made of mung beans, which have been prepared in the same way as mooncake fillings, so it is tender and creates the melt-in-the-mouth sensation,” said Linh Trang, who often makes the cake at home to calm her stomach.
“After mixing the powder well, we cover the bowl with clinging plastic film and let the dough rest for 30 to 60 minutes,” said Trang.
While the dough is resting, Trang prepares the fillings from mung beans. She divides the fillings into small portions of 10g each when it’s still warm. Of course, the bigger portions can be used for bigger rice balls.
“Shape each piece of dough into a ball, flatten it and put a filling ball at the centre and wrap it carefully, the dough should closely enclose the filling. If there is air in between, the balls will burst when being fried,” she said. For sesame balls, the baker makes the balls a little wet and then rolls them onto the sesame seeds. The next step is frying. The rice balls must be submerged in oil. When they are cooked well, they will puff and float on the surface and become yellowish.
“Don’t fry too many rice balls at one time to give space for them to puff and keep them from sticking to each other,” said Trang.
For caramel-coated balls, the baker heats sugarcane syrup in the pan, dissolve and simmer until the sauce turns quite thick. Then we add fried rice balls and stir well until they are all coated by a delicious layer of caramel.
Nguyễn Thị Hạnh is the owner of a small rice ball shop on 26 Trần Xuân Soạn Street, Hai Bà Trưng District, Hà Nội. She has sold the snack for 20 years. Everyday, she starts selling at 3pm and all the rice balls are sold out by twilight.
“The dough needs to have enough hydration, meaning it should feel soft and stretchy, not crumbled,” she said. “I make the dough completely from fragrant sticky rice, not mixed with any other type of rice powder. Maybe it’s the secret to make the delicious rice balls.” — VNS