Last week in Hoi An we had time to do something we haven't in ages: hang out in a market.
Hanging in the market is a particularly useful exercise in heavily-touristed Hoi An, where finding good Vietnamese food is a challenge. In the market it's a different story. There's so much fantastic stuff there that by the end of our fourth day our list of favorites had grown too long to manage in one morning. It's a damned sorry situation in which to find yourself - last day at the market, forced by lack of belly space to pick and choose.
This banh khoai vendor works at a low makeshift stall to one side of the market's 'food court', a line of concrete tiled stalls housing vendors selling everything from pho to fruit shakes. As we walked the food court line on our first morning several banh khoai vendors called out and waved their crepe pans at us - a flashing red light, in my book. We turned a corner and there this was this woman, quietly serving customers, completely oblivious to our existence.
Banh khoai is the predecessor to banh xeo, a huge rice flour pancake filled with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts that's more common in Saigon and south. As it cools banh xeo gets unappealingly soft and heavy with oil; for me it's always been a three-bite wonder.
Not so the smaller, more manageable banh khoai. The filling in this vendor's version is minimal - a single small slice of fatty belly pork and a half a small shrimp layed in the pan after the batter's been poured, a flourish of bean sprouts added just before she slides the pancake out of its pan. To eat, they're opened onto a square of stiff rice paper, layered with a few slices of tart star fruit and young banana and a handful of greens and herbs (sprouts, basil, paddy herb, mint, and lettuce, at this stall), and rolled tight. The dipping sauce alongside is made from soy beans and glutinous rice; chili's optional.
In one, two, three ... maybe four bites you're finished. The pancake's stayed warm and its edges crackly to the end, lightly cooked bean sprouts as crispy as the fresh greens you just added. This is a heavily oiled treat, but not overly so - the extra grease works here, soaking into the stiff rice paper and mixing with the dipping sauce.
Our usual limit was two each, but only because in this market we had other fish to fry - cao lau, central-style pho, ngo bap, banh beo ....