“How does it taste, ma?” I excitedly asked my mother the moment she put the first piece of bánh bèo, which I had just made, in her mouth.
“Good!” She replied while chewing the smooth and tender bánh bèo made of rice flour and topped with shredded shrimp.
Just that single word from her put a big smile across my face and made my entire day glow with joy and pride. I almost forgot that I was the worst cook in Huế!
I was a proud daughter today because it was the first time I made my mother’s now favorite dish and my childhood snack which I never think I could.
My mother has recently been sick and she lost all her appetite. She no longer wants to have steamed rice for every main meal as usual and prefers to have different snacks instead. She finds bánh bèo and bánh ướt (steamed rice paper) her new favorites because, as she put it, they are easier to swallow. I used to buy them from the market but I’m concerned about food safety so I decided to learn how to make them. Bánh ướt is easier to make as my friend Yên has recently taught me how to do it. She even brought rice flour to my house and made bánh ướt for my mother so that I could learn from her.
For making bánh ướt, I had a hand-on experience but for bánh bèo I only saw O Lé (one of the best bánh makers in Huế) steaming it once. I only briefly learned one stage which is steaming. After buying two sets of bánh bèo mold from Đông Ba Market and freshly caught river shrimps from Kim Long Market, I started feeling panicked. Not sure where to start. But thanks to Internet, I learnt the procedures and tips of how to make shredded shrimp, to steam the bánh bèo, etc.
Looking at the dish of bánh bèo that I’ve completed, I felt moved and nostalgic. I saw my childhood and my younger mother just in this simple and classic dish. All of the memories came back to when I was a little girl who always tried to skip noon nap to run out into the field to fly paper kites or to rummage through the bushes looking for something edible such as raspberries, lantern fruit, or cogon grass root. On the hot summer days, I waited for my mother to be deep in her nap then I would sneak out of the house running bare head in the sun. Of course, my mother was not happy about it but she knew she could hardly stop her stubborn daughter. We all know that every mother knows a lot of tricks and tips to make her children obey them. I was blessed that for this my mother gave me treats instead.
“If you take a noon nap now, when the bánh woman walks past our house later, I’ll order some bánh for you,” my mother promised.
The bánh woman, who walked door to door and sang “Ai bèo, nậm, lọc khôn?” (which is literally translated as “Anyone wants some bèo, nậm or lọc?”), often came to our area around 3 pm or so. She shouldered her mobile food stall, amazingly, only on a gánh – a bamboo stick with a pair of baskets on each end. She had everything in those two baskets, from bánh bèo, bánh nậm, bánh lọc, bánh ướt to the toppings, sauces, some tea for her customers and even a low stool for herself. My favorite bánh those days were bánh nậm wrapped in arrow-root leaf or bánh bèo dĩa which was arranged gracefully on a dish, brushed a little onion-fried oil and topped with orange-color shredded shrimp or mung bean and crispy pork skin. (And the bánh bèo, which is served in a separate small saucers, is called bánh bèo chén.)
I can’t remember if I obeyed my mother all the time in order to have such delicious treats but bánh bèo chén still stirs nostalgia in me whenever I have it and especially now that I can make it for her.