Over the two-plus years that have elapsed since we left Saigon for Kuala Lumpur we've nursed a few fond food memories. (And no - we don't count pho among them. Are we the only visitors to/former residents of Vietnam who do not count themselves among the world's pho-natics?)
There's a problem with nostalgia, culinary or otherwise: it's only half-rooted in reality. The rest is idealized re-imagination - so encounters with whatever one is nostalgic for are bound to disappoint. We returned to Saigon prepared to be, at least a little bit, underwhelmed.
But we weren't, not once. We found the flavors of the city's streets to be, if anything, brighter, bolder, and altogether more captivating than we remembered. Case in point - banh chuoi, a simple banana cake.
But not so simple. The Vietnamese culinary repertoire has multiple versions of banh chuoi; some are sticky with glutinous rice flour, others dense and seemingly flourless, while still others resemble the cakey banana bread made with gone-black bananas that we grew up with in the States.
The banh chuoi we'd been savoring in our minds' eye is more French-ish bread pudding than cake, and made with a variety of low-starch, strawberry-fruity banana that turns pink when it's cooked. Throughout our first year in Saigon we bought slabs of the stuff from a stall at Ben Thanh market and ate them after dinner with dollops of local full-fat cream so thick it didn't require whipping.
Then the stall closed. Occasionally we unearthed other versions of pink-banana'd banh chuoi around town, but none to compare with our first love.
So, you see, we were nostalgic for banh chuoi before we even left Saigon, and, as we contemplated returning, not at all hopeful that we'd find a version that lived up to our fantasies. We weren't looking for it a couple of weeks ago as we wandered the prepared food section at Tan Dinh market. Then, suddenly, we struck a banh chuoi bonanza.
The version up top was the prettiest of the lot, nestled, as it was, amongst a cache of tropical-hued glutinous rice cakes. It promised - with its formidable height, thick slices of barely-blushing pink bananas, and crackly surface sporting nicely caramelized fruit slices - banh chuoi bliss. But its texture, bouncy from glutinous rice flour, disappointed. This was not the soft, yielding banh chuoi of our dreams.
Then, euphoria - an ugly duckling of a banh chuoi (above) that sent us into spasms of ecstasy. Those chunky, pale squares of banana cake may not have elicited swoons on sight, but with their dense, buttery-eggy half-cake half-pudding swaddling tender chunks of pink bananas bursting with tart-sweet strawberry flavor, they came through in the end.
Every bit as scrumptious as we remembered, even without the full-fat cream. Score one for nostalgia.
Pink banana banh chuoi, food court, Tan Dinh morning market, Saigon.