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Bắc Nam


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#1 skchai

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Posted 21 July 2004 - 06:09 PM

Bắc Nam
1117 South King St.
Honolulu HI 96814
808 597-8201

Thanks to a very nice review by Lesa in Honolulu Weekly, I tried out this new (two months-old) Vietnamese place a couple weeks go. Since then, I’ve been back two more times, and for what it’s worth, in my opinion, it deserves to be called Honolulu's best Vietnamese restaurant. While I can't say I'm in a position to definitively compare it to other Vietnamese places in the U.S., I have eaten at least several highly-touted places in San Jose and Westminster. I've can honestly say that food-wise, Bắc Nam really impressed me as much or more than any of them.

What makes it so special? It's both the breadth of the menu and the execution. About half of the items on would not be found on any of your standard Vietnamese-American restaurant menus. Nor is Bắc Nam a high-end, East-West, creative cuisine place like Slanted Door in San Francisco. Instead, it serves a wide range of Vietnamese home-style and mid-range restaurant cooking that generally isn't available elsewhere in this country, at fairly cheap price, in very plain surroundings. There are a plethora of lamb dishes, variations on hand-shaped filled rice flour dumplings, a fair number of simmered and braised dishes (how many of those would you see at your next-door Pho Peoria?), and Vietnamese curries with your choice of meat. Every unusual item that I've tried so far has been very good to excellent.

It's the kind of menu you want to eat your way through, dish by dish, over the course of several months. However, I'm not sure if I'll have the chance, since both times we visited there for dinner, there were no other customers present (the one time I went for lunch, there were about a half-dozen others there). So please go to this restaurant now, and as often as you can, so that they'll stay open and I can continue to eat there.

A short write-up for each dish, moving from appetizers, to meat dishes, to roll-ups, and finally to salads:

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The "Bột Lọc delight'' consists of gooey rice-flour dumplings filled with boiled shrimp, raw yam, and bits of crisped onion and cilantro. Great texture contrast between the cover and filling, as well as between the mildness of the flavorings and the extremely spicy sauce served beside it.

The crisp onions seems to be a house trademark, since they comes on a lot of the dishes. I really like this, since it offers a texture contrast and a slight sweetness. If you don't agree, you can always ask them to leave it off.

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This is deep fried “chả”, a pieces of finely-ground pork sausage seasoned with garlic and fish sauce.

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Here are small cuttlefish (not calamari rings) that have been stuffed with a mixture of ground pork, long rice, onion, and cassava, breaded in coarse, jagged crumbs and deep fried. The squid are very chewy, so you end up partly sucking up the filling – but it’s very satisfying nonetheless.

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Did I mention the lamb dishes? The grilled lamb ribs were the first thing we ordered (my son's choice), and they really strike you. It's not just the phenomenon of eating lamb at a Vietnamese restaurants - they are simply really good. You get several rib chops marinated in a garlicky, lemon-grassy marinade, and grilled until extremely crusty on the outside. You can see the crustiness from the picture, but not the way the marinade permeated throughout he meat. The meat is not ultra-tender prime, but it was tender enough, grilled medium rare (be clear how you want it cooked), and not dry at all. At $10.95, this is a dish you can eat all the time. . . The chops come with a ground-soybean based dipping sauce, which complements them well, but they chops are just as good eaten alone.

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These “spicy grilled beef short ribs” are sort of like the Vietnamese version of kalbi. Not particularly spicy, just the usual fish sauce, garlic, and lemon grass marinade, but very well-prepared. Very crusty on the outside, but medium rare again on the inside.

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This is called “Steamed Rice Flour Meat Rolls”, which gives you no clue at all. It consists of Bánh Cuốn, a kind of filled dumpling with ground pork, tree ear mushrooms, onions, mint, and other things, then topped with chả that has been steamed.

This is a rollup dish, so it comes with a rice-flour pads and a side salad consisting of romaine lettuce, mint, basil, sawtooth herb (ngò gai), and rau răm, as well as the additional salad of shredded lettuce, cucumbers, and bean sprouts you see in the picture. Another mark of their quality is that they go out of their way to provide the full range of Vietnamese side herbs, rather than just lettuce, mint, and basil. Ngò gai is a bitter, bracing herb, while rau răm is spicier, sort of like a cilantro / mint combination.

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Grilled beef in lá lôt. This uses real lá lôt leaves (not grape leaves), and comes with rollup fixings similar to the ones that came with the bánh cuốn, as well as rice noodles and pickled carrot, daikon, and cucumbers. The grilling is perfect as usual – a nice char on the outside of the leaves, but not dry inside.


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Young lotus root salad. Besides the roots (long, tender, stalks, not hole-filled slices that you get with the mature root), the salad comes with boiled shrimp and pork, cucumber, carrots, daikon, and mint.

By the way, just putting in the diacritical marks for Vietnamese (which I’m sure I did wrong anyway, since I’m totally ignorant) took up half the time of this review. I figured MS Word would allow you to input the symbols in Unicode but how wrong I was – not having much good sense I kept on going and finally discovered Vietpad - a fine Java bitcode application that I highly recommend.

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Did I mention this place was unpretentious? It’s not exactly in the middle of a restaurant hotbed – it’s got a ceiling fan shop bordering it and one side and I’m not sure what on the other. Doesn’t matter go there – free parking in the back; great food.

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

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#2 FoodZealot

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Posted 21 July 2004 - 07:30 PM

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Grilled beef in lá lôt.  This uses real lá lôt leaves (not grape leaves), and comes with rollup fixings similar to the ones that came with the bánh cuốn, as well as rice noodles and pickled carrot, daikon, and cucumbers.  The grilling is perfect as usual – a nice char on the outside of the leaves, but not dry inside. 
[...]

By the way, just putting in the diacritical marks for Vietnamese (which I’m sure I did wrong anyway, since I’m totally ignorant) took up half the time of this review.

I had some Vietnamese food last week that was such a disappointment, and now this review! That looks like some seriously tasty food.

I had something at a different place recently similar to those rolls on the left, but the menu said the lá lôt was a Hawaiian leaf - seemed like it might have been taro leaf, but I've never had taro leaf that wasn't either steamed or stewed, so I can't really say.

And big props to you for using the diacritical marks.

Edited by FoodZealot, 21 July 2004 - 07:33 PM.


#3 skchai

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Posted 22 July 2004 - 02:30 PM

Tad - not sure why they would call lá lôt a Hawaiian leaf! I believe that it is what is more commonly referred to as the betel leaf (piper betel), which is used, along with the areca nut (sometimes called betelnut) and other seasonings, throughout SE and South Asia to make the chaw-like package (called "paan" in South Asia) that offers a mild buzz . . . It's not the leaf that provides the buzz, though, but the nut and other things like tobacco or even cannabis that might get added in. . .

Sun-Ki Chai
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#4 Andrea Nguyen

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Posted 22 July 2004 - 04:55 PM

Sun-ki,

How lucky you are. Bắc Nam sounds like a great restaurant that's making fine Viet food. From the name of the place, the owners are probably northerners. "Bắc" means north. Each region has great pride in its food, and northerners are extra boastful about the delicate flavors of their well-crafted foods. The central cooks are knowned for earthy, spicy, gutsy flavors. Southerners are wild and unrestrained; they live to eat, and love brash, bold foods loaded with varied color and texture.

Northerners are known for dishes like bánh cuốn, which are steamed rice crepes/noodles along the lines of Chinese fun noodles, but thinner. Bắc Nam's filling is pretty much right on for the northern version. (BTW, your diacritical marks are all on the mark! I'm extremely impressed.) The addition of the steamed pate/pork roll is very northern too. The awkward menu translation of this dish is because in Vietnamese, the name of it literally is rolled doughstuff. Bánh is anything primarily made from a flour or legume (cakes, cookies, dumplings, noodles, crepes); cuốn, you may guess, means to roll. Not attractive sounding but it's one of our treasured dishes.

The deep fried chả looks like it was cut off from a log of steamed pork paste, and then fried. Traditionally, you fried the entire thing (whether it's in a log or not) and then slice it. There's this yummy crispy crust that forms, a nice contrast to the soft center. The squid is a new invention of theirs. Normally, squid is stuffed and then shallow fried. It's sliced before serving. It looks like they conveniently stuffed theirs and perhaps steamed it first before slicing it and deep frying it? That's why it may have been too chewy. Is that panko on the outside?

I like the lamb a lot. Lamb is not an indigenous meat to Vietnam. (It's too hot for them.) However, goat and various other 4-legged animals are eaten. The gaminess of lamb is similar to that of goat so the chops are a great idea. How ironic, about 6 weeks ago the New York Times had a recipe of Charles Phan (Slanted Door in SF) for lamb chops served with tamarind sauce. I like the sound of Bắc Nam's better. Their marinade is a pretty classic/standard Viet combination.

The beef short ribs are definitely inspired by Korean kalbi. Nowadays, there's lots of mingling between Korean and Vietnamese folks. For example, both ethnic groups have enclaves and communities near each other in the north Orange County area in Southern California. So just as Koreans love pho, Viet people love kalbi. Maybe it's all for the love of beef? Anyway, there's lots of cultural borrowing going on and that dish is a good result of it!

Now for those onions... Bắc Nam, like many contemporary Viet restaurants, employ lots of these crispy fried onions. It's essentially onion or shallot that's been fried to a caramelized, crispy state. I'm really surprised that the restaurant makes it from fresh onion because lots of places on the mainland prefer to use thinly sliced dehydrated shallot. Actually, lots of Viet home cooks do too. In my opinion, the shallot stuff is over used. It's sort of a cheap trick to enrich foods. It's like sprinkling canned parmesan cheese over food. Anyway, the fact that the restaurant fries the stuff using fresh onion or shallot is a really nice, old-fashioned touch. The flavor is also superior.

Lá lôt resembles the betel leaf you described, but it's actually a wild betel leaf (Piper sarmentosum). Raw, it has an unusually cinnamon flavor that's a little medicinal. I've often been embarrassed to ask if a leaf is lá lôt and then get a response that the leaf is actually the betel for chewing.

I've eaten at lots of bad Viet restaurants that make me embarrassed and sad. Many times, sugar is too liberally used to mask poor ingredients and bad technique. For those reasons, when I or anyone stumbles on a place that's good, I figure that that's special enough. You are very fortunate to have such a spot.

Happy dining,

Andrea
Andrea Q. Nguyen

Author, food writer, teacher
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors (Ten Speed Press, Oct. 2006)
Vietworldkitchen.com

#5 skchai

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Posted 24 July 2004 - 01:51 PM

Andrea,

Thanks so much for your extremely informative post - it puts us all in a position to appreciate the food much better! Interesting to hear about the fact that some of Bắc Nam's dishes, while basically Northern, have unusual personal touches, such as the frying of the chả after it has been sliced. It was also interesting to learn that the, crisp-fried onions are actually a common household garnish.

. . .
The squid is a new invention of theirs. Normally, squid is stuffed and then shallow fried. It's sliced before serving. It looks like they conveniently stuffed theirs and perhaps steamed it first before slicing it and deep frying it? That's why it may have been too chewy. Is that panko on the outside?


I couldn't tell really if the squid had been steamed before frying - I'm assuming that it was not, but the filling seems to have been stir-fried separately before being put into the squid. It does seem like panko on the outside - a particularly sharp, jagged kind.

I like the lamb a lot. Lamb is not an indigenous meat to Vietnam. (It's too hot for them.) However, goat and various other 4-legged animals are eaten. The gaminess of lamb is similar to that of goat so the chops are a great idea. How ironic, about 6 weeks ago the New York Times had a recipe of Charles Phan (Slanted Door in SF) for lamb chops served with tamarind sauce. I like the sound of Bắc Nam's better. Their marinade is a pretty classic/standard Viet combination.


So lamb is a substitute for goat - interesting. I didn't see the Phan recipe in the NY Times. Interesting how Slanted Door started out as more of a home-cooking restaurant and has moved more and more into the high-end fusion direction.

The beef short ribs are definitely inspired by Korean kalbi. Nowadays, there's lots of mingling between Korean and Vietnamese folks. For example, both ethnic groups have enclaves and communities near each other in the north Orange County area in Southern California. So just as Koreans love pho, Viet people love kalbi. Maybe it's all for the love of beef? Anyway, there's lots of cultural borrowing going on and that dish is a good result of it!


On those times I've had a chance to visit Orange County, my family and I have always dropped by Garden Grove Blvd. Koreatown, then driven the couple of long blocks down to Bolsa Ave. in Westminster. It's like getting immersed in two ongoing cultural festivals, right next to each other. Perhaps that really is the birthplace of the recent boom in Korean-Vietnamese culinary interchange. . .

. . .
Lá lôt resembles the betel leaf you described, but it's actually a wild betel leaf (Piper sarmentosum). Raw, it has an unusually cinnamon flavor that's a little medicinal. I've often been embarrassed to ask if a leaf is lá lôt and then get a response that the leaf is actually the betel for chewing.


Thanks for the correction on lá lôt - I suppose we should be happy that they don't use the kind for chewing!

. . .
You are very fortunate to have such a spot.


I certainly agree. Honolulu was not, interestingly enough, a central destination for the immigrants during the 1970s, but has recently experienced a major rise in its ethnic Vietnamese population. In particular, the local Chinatown district now boasts of a very large number of Vietnamese shops, primarily catering to the immigrant population.

Thanks again, Andrea for your great work in keeping us informed about Vietnamese food, both here and on Vietworldkitchen!

Sun-Ki

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http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

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#6 Andrea Nguyen

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 11:03 AM

Sun-Ki,

You're very welcome. I only briefly stopped in Hawaii enroute to the mainland when my family came to the U.S. from Vietnam. Maybe soon, I'll go on vacation there and know that there's decent Viet food to be had!

Thanks for pointing out the dish with the lamb. I really like lamb and will try making something Viet with it.

Keep eating, thinking, and writing,

Andrea
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Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors (Ten Speed Press, Oct. 2006)
Vietworldkitchen.com

#7 Andrea Nguyen

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Posted 26 July 2004 - 12:15 PM

Sun-ki,

On the thing with the lamb and goat in Viet cooking, I was going through a Viet cookbook (written in Vietnamese) and found an entry for a lamb dish. This is something that's pretty rare so it made me wonder about the statement that I made about the lamb being a substitute for goat. Lamb is not widely eaten in Vietnam; my dad, who's in his 70s, enjoyed lamb only in the company of French militar officers. It's not regular people's meat. There's pork, beef, goat, deer... and I'll stop here ... but very very little mention of lamb. The cookbook I refer to above is a newer one, published in 2000.

Nonetheless, I'm curious about how the folks at Bac Nam decided to include lamb chops on their menu. If you have the opportunity ask them.

Andrea
Andrea Q. Nguyen

Author, food writer, teacher
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors (Ten Speed Press, Oct. 2006)
Vietworldkitchen.com

#8 skchai

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Posted 27 July 2004 - 12:57 PM

Interesting about the lamb - I'll definitely ask them next time I go there?

Do let us know if you're ever in Hawai`i - maybe we can organize an eGullet Vietnamese food outing . . .!

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

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#9 kaukaulesa

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Posted 12 August 2004 - 11:56 AM

Andrea,
Yes, thanks for your in-depth knowledge on Vietnamese food! I learned a lot from your posts. When I ate at Bac Nam, I was surprised to see lamb on the menu, and asked the owner if lamb is eaten "back home," and he said yes. But as you pointed out through that cookbook mention, perhaps that's a recent addition to the meat lineup.

You're right, I think the husband is from the north, and the wife is from the south (or vice versa).

Sun-Ki, I am so happy to see your great photos and thorough coverage of the place. I'm with you...I'm so scared to see them go under. I want to keep eating the lamb curry!

aloha
Lesa

#10 pake

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Posted 12 August 2004 - 01:43 PM

Here's the Phan recipe. I have the picture but don't know how to add it.


LEMON-GRASS-GRILLED RACK OF LAMB w/ TAMARIND SAUCE
Charles Phan, Slanted Door, SF

4 stalks lemon grass, trimmed, minced
4 ea. shallots, peeled
2 ea. Thai chilis (or 1 sml. jalapeño), stemmed & seeded,
(or ~1 tsp. crushed red chili flakes), or to taste
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbs. neutral oil (corn or canola)
2 Tbs. fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc mam)
2 ea. sml. racks of lamb, ~1-1/4 lbs. ea., cut into riblets
salt & pepper
Tamarind Sauce

1. Combine lemon grass w/ shallots, chilis, sugar & oil in mortar & pestle or food processor, or mince finely w/ knife, add fish sauce.
2. Sprinkle lamb w/ salt & pepper.
3. Marinate in mixture 2~3 hrs., wrapped & refrigerated.
4. Start grill, rake coals so fire is quite hot on 1 side & cooler on other, grill rack is ~4'' from heat source.
5. Grill lamb, start on hot part of grill, until crusty, turn as necessary.
6. Move to cooler part if threatens to char.
7. Cook until temp. in center of meat measures 125° ~ 130° for rare, 10~15 min., serve hot, w/ Tamarind Sauce. (4 servings)

Tamarind Sauce
1/2 lb. dried tamarind pods, or 1 lb. tamarind paste
1/2 cup sugar, or to taste
2 Tbs. fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc mam), or to taste.

1. Simmer pods (w/ husks) or paste in hot water to cover, stirring & mashing until soft, ~10 min. for pods, 5 for paste, if use pods, remove husks, press pulp & seeds in fine sieve.
2. While warm, stir in sugar & fish sauce, serve hot, w/ lamb.
3. Sauce can be refrigerated ~1 day, reheated just before serving, adding little water or lime juice if necessary to thin out. (1 cup)

The Chef © 2004 The New York Times Company

Edited by pake, 12 August 2004 - 01:47 PM.


#11 skchai

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Posted 05 September 2004 - 01:20 AM

I was browsing through noodlepie's excellent foodblog from Vietnam and found this reference to Bánh Cuốn at a place called Stall 1006. Looks remarkably similar to the Bánh Cuốn I had at Bắc Nam. Noodlepie says that it originates just outside of Hanoi - so now we know where it comes from! BTW, looking through his posts gives you some idea of the wide universe of Vietnamese restaurant food that rarely makes it to the U.S., except in places like Bắc Nam.

Sun-Ki Chai
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#12 Quark

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Posted 13 September 2004 - 11:00 AM

My wife and I finally made it to B?c Nam and we enjoyed it. Definitely need to go back and try the other items on the menu. Maybe even check it out for lunch some time. I remember Kaukaulesa telling me about a red sauce they used. I saw the picture of the curry in the menu which was red but was surprised at its green color when it came. It was good but I wonder what made it so red in the picture. Maybe it was the hot sauce, since this one was not hot by choice.

#13 pieman

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Posted 03 October 2004 - 09:47 PM

One point about lamb dishes in Vietnam. Although it is quite common in Indian and other 'international' restaurants, I've only seen one Vietnamese restaurant in Vietnam (a grill at the table alleyway place in Saigon, District 1) that serves lamb. Unfortunately, I've never tried it. But after reading this short debate, I think I should drop by and blog it up at noodlepie.

Interestingly, there's quite a number of Kangaroo meat restaurants in Saigon. And you can buy Skippymeat in supermarkets quite easily. I only know one place where you can buy lamb to cook at home, Veggies on Thai Van Lung Street in District 1. And that caters almost exclusively to non-Vietnamese customers.

#14 skchai

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Posted 05 October 2004 - 09:57 PM

Mahalo nui loa for dropping in on our thread, pieman. Perhaps they are using lamb as a substitute for goat meat?

Would very much like to hear about what's going on at Saigon's on lamb meat restaurant. Or your experiences with kangaroo or Skippymeat, if you have the stomach.

Presumably the kangaroo meat is imported! Might it be too much to speculate that is is valued in Vietnam because it supposedly, err., increases the springiness of your body parts?

Sun-Ki Chai
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Former Hawaii Forum Host


#15 skchai

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Posted 06 October 2004 - 02:34 PM

BTW, we were back there the other day and asked the owner what part of Viet Nam the various dishes came from. He said that there is an even spread between North and South, and that the real specialty, if could call it that, is Northern dishes prepared Southern style (which presumably means more of a fanciness). That's why he calls the restaurant Bắc Nam, i.e. north-south or 北南.

Sun-Ki Chai
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#16 pieman

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Posted 08 October 2004 - 02:08 AM

Perhaps they are using lamb as a substitute for goat meat?   

Would very much like to hear about what's going on at Saigon's on lamb meat restaurant.  Or your experiences with kangaroo

Presumably the kangaroo meat is imported!  Might it be too much to speculate that is is valued in Vietnam because it supposedly, err., increases the springiness of your body parts?

View Post


No substitute for goat, goats are everywhere here. It's just a speciality lamb place apparently. The only reason I noticed it is because I saw the picture of a sheep next the restaurant sign. Same goes for the Kangaroos (not reared locally...) which (I am sure you're right) the local toughs believe will do all sorts of intriguing things to help with feelings of inadequacy.

#17 guppymo

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Posted 11 March 2005 - 01:10 PM

The first picture, the picture of "Banh Bot Loc" - I think it's made from tapioca flour and not rice flour. I think that restaurant used too much tapioca flour, and it's a little bit undercooked, because tapioca when cooked will be translucent, you are supposed to be able to see through the outside layer, looking at that plate all we could see is the white tapioca flour.

The picture below shows a "banh bot loc" on the right hand side on the plate.

Posted Image

#18 PakePorkChop

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Posted 13 March 2005 - 02:06 AM

Just a quick note, Sk.

What a rare and wonderful thread! A great find, informative posts, enticing images...

This must make all your work worthwhile!

#19 skchai

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Posted 16 March 2005 - 11:27 PM

Thanks, PPC - posting a report can be the beginning of a learning experiences.

And thanks, Guppymo (if you're still there) for the info on the Bahn Bột Lọc. I'll have to ask the Bắc Nam folks what their covering recipe is next time I'm there.

Sun-Ki Chai
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~sunki/

Former Hawaii Forum Host