Boc boc boc…that sound keeps playing on my mind whenever I remember my mom at the stove stirring and stirring continuously, preparing bánh bột (savory coconut cake).
A family rooted in Bến Tre where there is an abundant supply of coconut, we’ve always had this crazy love for the wonder fruit. We make no excuse to let coconut make its way into our cooking: fish sauce made with the juice instead of plain water gives it a natural sweet taste while the milk in chè (sweet soup) acts a flavor enhancer. When it comes to bánh bột, coconut milk is absolutely a must.
Bánh bột is essentially a boiled batter from rice flour and coconut milk, served with stir-fried cassava and shrimp together with a dipping fish sauce (nước mắm). A perfect bite would consist of a piece of soft rice cake, crunchy cassava bits and chewy dried shrimp dipped in a good tangy nước mắm. Oh, did I forget to mention there is also a splash of spring onion oil (mỡ hành) on top of everything. Simple much?
Behind the innocent look is a time-and-labor-intensive process that requires a lot of muscle strength. I still remember my mom spending half an hour at the stove just stirring and stirring the batter. You have to; otherwise the batter will be lumpy and stick to the pot (back in those days the only Teflon cookware we had was a pan which was specially used for bánh xèo, another yummy delight, but let’s just talk about bánh bột first). If she had to go somewhere halfway, I was the one taking responsibility and when she was back she would give me a frown, saying I didn’t have enough strength. We usually made this dish when we were back in my hometown where there would never be a fear of running out of coconut milk. The batter is bland and not rich enough? Never mind, let’s go to the garden and shred some fresh coconut flesh, quickly squeeze it and voila, here is your coconut milk!
To prepare for the topping, my mom needed to dice probably around 1 kg of cassava into nice size so they could cook evenly. Let’s just say dicing things wasn’t (and still isn’t) her strength. After 10 minutes of seeing my mom struggling with the knife and the chopping board but the final products weren’t picture perfect, Sáu Hạnh (my sixth aunt) would come to the rescue and finish the rest of the cassava. Sáu Hạnh is the meticulous type who will not let any mis-shed cabbage go onto the plate or any unevenly-diced cassava get into the pan.
While my sixth aunt was dicing the cassava, Cô Y (my third aunt) would start complaining about the state of the kitchen, about how messy my mom was with all her ingredients over the place. She then cleaned up bit by bit and asked me to pound the garlic and chilly in a mortar to make the dipping sauce, her forte. With or without coconut juice as the base, she would always make the best versatile fish sauce I have ever tasted. The method is the same everytime she does, but the taste just changed according to the dish you pair it with.
At the end when everything was done, it was just pure bliss to sit back and enjoy our share of bánh bột, talking and laughing about everything under the sun until my grandmother had to shush us so she could get some afternoon nap. Ông Bùn (my youngest uncle) would then talk me into drinking more coconut juice as according to him “you can never a better breed of coconut elsewhere, only in my garden”. Oh, life was as good as it could get…
Mom at the stove stirring the batter pot; Sáu Hạnh cutting cassava diligently and Cô Y grumbling cleaning up the kitchen while making nước mắm: together these 3 women make the best bánh bột for my taste buds. Until now a bite of bánh bột still brings back so many fond memories cooking together with them. They have introduced me to the basics of cooking, shaped my love for food and showed me happiness is just right where you want it to stay.
Embrace the beauty of food in all of its varied forms.
PS: I’m in the midst of collecting my aunt’s thoughts to come up with the exact measurements for the recipe, so stay tuned 🙂