Rice paper salad a signature street food in HCM City

March 31, 2020 - 15:01

Often sold by bicycle vendors, the street food snack has become a signature dish of the southern city.

Bảo Hoa

A trip to HCM City wouldn't be complete without trying bánh tráng trộn, also known as rice paper salad.

Often sold by bicycle vendors, the street food snack has become a signature dish of the southern city.

Made of shredded rice paper and a number of other ingredients including beef jerky and green mangoes, its taste is a mixture of sweet and sour.

Nguyễn Thị Phương Thu, 54, is one of those vendors and she has sold the dish on a corner of Bầu Cát Street in Tân Bình District for decades.

BICYCLE VENDOR: Nguyễn Thị Phương Thu (far back) has been selling rice paper salad and other snacks on her bicycle on HCM City's Bầu Cát Street for years. VNS Photo Đăng Nguyễn

"I’ve been doing this since 22, now I’m 54," she said.

"I normally get up at a quarter to 7am, wash and prepare my plastic bowls, and get all my stuff out here. I’ll get here at 8, 8.15, or 8.30, depending on how long it takes to prepare everything.

"I’ll be here until midnight. When I finish cleaning up it will be one in the morning. Then I will park my tricycle at Bầu Cát market, which costs me about VNĐ150,000 (US$6.3) a month, and go back to the place I rent."

Being affordable is part of why the salad is so popular in the cosmopolitan city.

"The living cost in Sài Gòn is high, and labour workers don’t get paid much, only VNĐ2-3 million ($84-123) a month," Thu said. "So snacks like this salad are convenient for them."

MAKE DO: Thu uses a small plastic bowl to mix the salad. VNS Photo Đăng Nguyễn

Every day is a long day for vendors like Thu. But over the years she has secured some loyal customers.

"I have customers who had had my rice paper since they were small, now they have gone to study abroad and still miss it.

"Those who have moved to live in other countries also miss it, and sometimes ask their mothers to buy it from me and send to them."

With rice paper as the main ingredient, the salad can be as simple as having shrimp salt and cooking oil as the only other components, or it can have a dozen ingredients and become a delicacy, like how shop owner Diệp Thế Viên does it.

STREET FOOD ELEVATED: Diệp Thế Viên (left) prepares rice paper salad for delivery at his shop on Nguyễn Thượng Hiền Street in District 3. VNS Photo Bảo Hoa

"This snack is unique. It tastes sour, sweet, nutty, spicy and rich at the same time, and people never get fed up with it," the 51-year-old said.

"It’s been around for a long time. I had it since I was a student. But it was not elevated then.

"When I opened my own shop I added several spices to create my own unique flavour and make people remember it.

"My salad has shredded rice paper, shrimp salt, dried fried onions, shredded chicken, kumquat juice, cashew oil, beef jerky sauce, shredded green mangos, and quail eggs. Eleven ingredients in total."

Viên owns a small shop on Nguyễn Thượng Hiền Street in District 3, which is considered the 'rice paper salad street' of the city.

His staff work in an assembly line, with each of them in charge of adding certain ingredients to the salad.

"We add salt and the dried ingredients first, but will only add oil, kumquat juice and mix them together when the customers order," Viên said.

"For those that want to take it away on trips I will put the laska leaves, green mangos and quail eggs in a separate bag to keep the rice paper dry."

A FEAST FOR THE EYES: Rice paper salad portions at VIên's shop that are made up of shredded rice papers, beef jerky, dried shrimp, peanuts, green mangoes, and laska leaves. VNS Photo Bảo Hoa

His thoughtful preparations have won the hearts and stomachs of many customers.

Đặng Tấn Quốc Triều, 21, from Thủ Đức District, said: "I’ve had rice paper here several times and I think it’s delicious.

"Vien’s rice paper has a variety of flavours. Delicious. Indescribable."

For those like Nguyễn Huỳnh Ngọc Bích, 28, from District 3, rice paper salad is not only a daily essential but also a favourite childhood snack.

"It has been my favourite dish since I was young," she said.

"There's a shop close to my house, it is clean, and their salad suits my taste, so I have it almost every day.

"I like the ones with scallion garnish, fried garlic and spicy saté." VNS