Viet Nam News
By Hồ Hoàng
Though not as well known as some of Việt Nam’s other culinary delights, bánh gối (pillow cake) is a uniquely Vietnamese treat that everyone should try once.
The pillow cake has cousins around the world, like Poland’s pierogi, Russia’s pelmeni and Ukraine’s vareniki. But what makes bánh gối stand out from its famous relatives?
First, let’s talk about the crust, an important part of every pastry.
The making of Vietnamese pillow cake takes times, patience and passion with distinctive meticulous processes.
With a sufficient amount of wheat flour, warm water, salt, cooking oil, turmeric powder, you can become a talented tailor to make the “pillow”.
By mixing all of these ingredients until the dough becomes silky, you will have a perfect crust later which is both supple and crunchy after frying.
After mixing, cover the dough up for about one to two hours, then divide it into several small pieces and spread them on a clean, nonstick surface.
Next is a crucial step, when you circle every piece of dough into small ball, then press down hard enough to flatten to create the cake’s skin (or the ’pillowcase’).
The ideal thickness of this layer lies is about 0.8 to one millimetre. Too thick and the final product will be too greasy, while too thin is unsteady.
Of course if you want to save time, there are readymade ’pillowcases’ sold in Lương Văn Can Street.
There is one pillow cake shop that stands out to Vietnamese people at 52 Lý Quốc Sư Street in Hà Nội. The shop lies next to a large banyan tree and with its trademark name “Banyan Stump”, the shop has been open since 1983, serving one of the best if not the best pillow cakes ever.
“The crust is what classifies the appetite of the cake between different shops. Making a perfect crust requires technique with secret family recipe. But after all, to create a delicious pillow cake, every step has to be meticulously performed, from the beginning by selecting the finest ingredients. With excellent wheat flour, comes alongside great responsibility of the chef from mixing, dividing and pushing to flattening the dough into perfect ‘pillowcases’, a delicious pillow cake is not impossible,” said Nguyễn Thị Oanh, owner of the Lý Quốc Sư shop.
Without doubt, the crust is important, but the element that boosts the cake to another level is how it perfectly combines the filling and aesthetic factors.
The shape and the edge of the ’pillowcase’ is splendidly formed with supple skin which tells a lot about the importance of the flattening step, and the way they “sew” the cake’s edges at such speed is remarkable.
After finishing making the ’pillowcase’, it’s time to stuff it.
Bánh gối is filled with mince, shiitake mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, glass noodles, a small portion of pepper, slices of marinated Chinese sausage and of course, boiled quail egg.
“As I said, best quality ingredients bring you finest food. The most delicious filling comes from fresh excellent beef and skin peeled pork cushion. To maintain the original taste of ingredients, spice reduction is really necessary. When every flavour is blended harmoniously, a wonderful sense of crunchiness, greasiness and tastiness comes all at once,” Oanh added.
What sets pillow cake aside from its relatives is developed through the creativity of Vietnamese gastronomes in the way they enjoy it.
No extra spice is needed as the sauce itself suffices, with its secret proportion of simple ingredients like green papaya, water, salt and vinegar. The Lý Quốc Sư restaurant has created an incredible dipping sauce without using any fish sauce.
Dipping the hot crunchy yellow cakes into the excellent sauce which is lightly sweet, sour and spicy at the same time can bring diners a whole new amazing sensation.
Various kinds of aromatic herbs offer diners another way of eating pillow cakes.
Unlike other traditional pillow cake shops, “Ms Mai’s pillow cake” near Hàn Thuyên Road, Nam Định Province has a unique way of being eaten. Designed in a handheld style, pillow cakes here are smaller and thinner with chilli and tomato sauce.
So with only a few additional spices and herbs, the cake has brings diverse experiences for cuisine lovers.
“For me, the cake is also a noble symbol represents time. For Hanoians who have been living in this capital for decades, even during the French colonial time, the cake was here, mindfully carried in tray of street venders spreading cheerful flavours that warm the hearts of diners, especially in cold winter days,” said Hanoian Nguyễn Văn Đức.
The cake is symbolic, showing us that it’s not where you’re from that is the most important, but what you represent that decides who you are. The way it presents time, feeling, love and passion of the Vietnamese people does earn it a solemn place in the the country culinary hall of fame. — VNS