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In Bánh Củ Cải, a Curious Slice of Bac Lieu's Teochew Heritage

You know a dish is special when it can spark conversation with a stranger on a bus. Halfway through the scrumptious bánh củ cải (radish cake) from our last-minute trip to the market, I shared the other half with my mom. "You're full?" asked a lady in the bunk next to us, which was then followed by a long discussion. I came home with several handy tips on how to recreate and elevate the already flavorful treat.

If one ever find themselves in Bac Lieu Province, the name bánh củ cải points to two different things: bánh củ cải Tiều, which was the radish cake I had on the bus, also known as sái thào cúi; and another type of bánh củ cải that resembles a vegetable-forward hybrid between a dumpling and a bánh cuốn dish, referred to as bánh củ cải, bánh củ cải Bạc Liêu or bánh củ cải xếp. To make matters even more complicated, bánh củ cải is also what many people in southern Vietnam with Teochew origins call youtiao,giò chéo quẩy or giò cháo quẩy.

Bánh củ cải Tiều

At 6am, the big Bac Lieu market, more commonly called chợ lớn by locals, is bustling with people and motorcycles. The usual business might have been escalated by thanh minh, or tomb-sweeping day, as many families are making trips to markets to get flowers, fruits and food for ancestral offerings. The Chinese ancestor memorial tradition is one of Bac Lieu's largest holidays, due to the large population of Teochew (Han Chinese people native to historical Chaozhou Prefecture) descendants here, of which my family is one.

In the front yard of a gold shop, a stall sells various types of bánh, including bánh bò, bánh bông lan, bánh tổ, bánh xôi vị, etc. As soon as one of the owners bring out a tray full of round bánh củ cải Tiều, motorcycles and people from different directions hurry towards it. Besides having a reputation as the go-to place for bánh củ cải in Bac Lieu, a crowd gathers because there are only two vendors that sell it in the market, and possibly in the whole city. Most bánh củ cải appearances in Mekong Delta occur within the walls of Teochew homes.

A typical batch of bánh củ cải Tiều is made with a combination of shredded radish and rice flour combined with fillings such as dried shrimp, lạp xưởng, dried shiitake mushroom, peanuts and small shrimp that have been seasoned and sauteed. The mixture is then steamed with added coriander leaves. Some cooks might add chicken broth or other types of stocks to add flavor to the rice flour batter. When ready, bánh củ cải Tiều can be enjoyed immediately, or saved in the fridge to be fried up later. While the cake is often steamed in a round pan and then cut up to slices, it also exists in spherical form, with each cake about the size of a fist.

Making and consuming bánh củ cải Tiều is an important marker of the Teochew identity in Bac Lieu and other provinces in the lower parts of Mekong Delta, such as Ca Mau and Soc Trang. A quick scan through a Facebook group that connects Teochew people in Vietnam demonstrates this point. The keyword bánh củ cải brings up plenty of photos of people showcasing their bánh củ cải creations and micro-entrepreneurs selling homemade bánh củ cải. Minh Cuc, a journalist from a Teochew family, once writes in her book Pà Pá Mình Kiếm Món Gì Ngon Ăn Đi about feeling ashamed when she was young because she didn't know what bánh củ cải was, despite her family background. 

Since Teochew people in Southeast Asia originate from Shantou, Jieyang and Chaozhou cities, which make up the Chaoshan region in China's Guangdong Province, Teochew cuisine shares some similarities with its Cantonese counterpart. The ingredients and recipes for bánh củ cải Tiều are strikingly similar to Cantonese lo bak go. One could also make the connection to the Teochew s taple chai tow kway, or fried radish cake cubes.

Bánh củ cải xếp

Neither Ly or Mai remembers exactly when they started making bánh củ cải xếp, beyond "some long time ago." Both women also expresse nonchalance towards my praise of what they're making, since according to them, bánh củ cải xếp is just an ordinary treat. However, for people who used to live in Bac Lieu and fell in love with the dish but now live in other parts of the country, bánh củ cải xếp remains an item of nostalgia, as the dish is nowhere to be found outside of the area. 

Mai, who has a Khmer grandmother and a Teochew grandfather, learned how to make bánh củ cải xếp by helping her mom, who also used to sell the dish in a small market. For Mai, making bánh củ cải xếp is just one talent among the various cooking and baking skills and knowledge that female members of her family possess and pass on to younger generations, as long as one is open to learning. Similarly, Ly also learned from her sister. When I ask about the dish's origins, Ly says: "I saw someone in my house make it and then I learned and made it, I don't know the origins." She then laughs out loud.

While bánh củ cải Tiều is eaten inside the home, bánh củ cải xếp is Bac Lieu's quintessential street food. Despite carrying the name bánh củ cải, which literally translates to radish cake, the dish doesn't contain radish. Mai tells me that there was a time when people did use radish in the fillings, but many switched to jicama, or củ sắn, for a sweeter flavor. The filling is made with sauteed, grated jicama, pork and shrimp, all wrapped in a flat rice flour noodle sheet akin to bánh cuốn and hủ tiếu, and then served with a generous amount of raw vegetables and sweet fish sauce.

Making the wrappers is an art in and of itself. Mai and Ly are both against using rice flour for the dish and stick to using bột gạo nước, which is milled rice. According to Mai, rice flour isn't fresh enough and will make the batter sour. To make the batter, rice has to be soaked first, before it is milled. Every day, Ly and Mai wake up at sunrise to grind rice into a liquid and use all of it within the same day. The right ratio of rice and water is crucial for the batter texture. The freshness of the milled rice will also produce a better flavor. Because of this involved process, many bánh củ cải vendors are only open for a brief window from opening time until they run out of bánh củ cải.

The origins of the dish are unclear. One writer, however, associates bánh củ cải xếp to many quang gánh by Khmer vendors: "The Khmer made the wrappers for bánh củ cải using only rice flour, with minimal fat from oil and lard and thus it is very light ... The most crucial element that dictates whether the Khmer-style bánh củ cải is delicious or not lies in the milling and how you steam it. If the wrappers come out thin and chewy, its maker is dexterous."

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