Ms. Kieu’s banh ep - a famous dish in Thuan An
Ms. Kieu’s banh ep stall lies in a four-level house with no sign on Le Si Street, Thuan An Ward (about 15 km from Hue City). Among many stalls selling banh ep on this small road which directly leads to the sea, you can recognize Ms. Kieu’s by looking for the house with a black smokey window.
There, Ms. Kieu sets up four stoves with red burning flames from seven in the morning until seven or eight in the evening. Though the stall does not have a signboard, it is always crowded with "loyal customers" – the "avid fans of banh ep" who have known Ms. Kieu for more than 15 years.
What is so attractive about Ms. Kieu’s banh ep? Made from stuffed finest flour with slices of fat, onions and eggs, it is pressed tightly between two hot cast iron molds placed on a charcoal stove with burning flames. The steaming hot pressed cake is as big as a small plate, with the flexibility of the finest flour and the fragrance of fried eggs. The cake is served with herbs, cucumbers, sweet and sour carrots, and shredded papaya. As simply as that, however, what makes one stall better than the other is the fish sauce.
Ms. Kieu's fish sauce is very delicious. It is clear, fragrant with garlic and chili, and balanced between salty, sour, and sweet tastes, which is just right for even the most fastidious people.
Wrapping the cake with vegetables and dipping it into a bowl of fish sauce, the “avid fans of banh ep”leisurely enjoy their culinary pleasures. The whole “eating experience” of wrapping the cake while chatting happily only costs about thirty thousand VND per person.
For the popular customers in the state of “exultation”, the price is so affordable that they can confidently treat each other. This is because people like Ms. Kieu only make ends meet by selling pressed cakes.
“In this season, earning a living from such local cake is joyful, and having customers coming in and out brings the greatest joy. Those living by selling food all know they will be happier than ever when the food that they make is enjoyed by customers” – the confession of Ms. Kieu is as sincere as the lives of people in Thuan An, where people, despite living a hard-working life, treat each other generously in the love of coastal people for many generations, just like the way the sea is overflowed with waves and wind.
According to Ms. Kieu, she is not the first one in the banh ep business in Thuan An, yet still having nearly 20 years of experience. In the first place, she made a living by hawking dry pressed cake for tourists at the beach, but that only worked in the summer. Therefore, she had to make more pressed cake to sell to stores.
For the past fifteen years, she has also made fresh pressed cake, and her stall has become one of the most famous places in Thuan An that sell delicious pressed cake. This dish is simple, commonplace but full of flavors, which is similar to the lives of poor people in Thuan An such as Ms. Kieu and others depending on pressing banh ep for their livelihood.
There are also many levels of love for Ms. Kieu’s banh ep. There is one “female craving for banh ep” who drives over ten kilometers in the rainy afternoon with her friend only for the experience of “wrapping and dipping” one plate of banh ep for each, and then having fun during the ride back home. Not once or twice, but whenever they want to take some fresh air, they will invite each other to Thuan An to enjoy Ms. Kieu banh ep.
Upon their arrival home, customers from Quang Tri and Quang Nam also got straight to Ms. Kieu’sbanh ep stall, and those from “mountainous regions and even Tuan junction also come here to eat and hang out with friends," Ms. Kieu said in a lovely voice while joking about the customers' "love" for her banh ep.
Especially, many “avid fans of banh ep” who leave for Saigon, Hanoi, or even abroad to study still “beg” their mothers to buy Ms. Kieu’s banh ep and send to them. Unless it is Ms. Kieu’s banh ep, they will know right away. Strangely, that commonplace dish is not only suitable for Hue students, but also for foreign ones. What’s interesting is that young people often have many things in common, especially the taste of snacks.
Now, one can see many banh ep stalls when walking around the streets of Hue. Wherever there is banh ep, there are students “crowding together”. Sometimes, sitting back to contemplate that “crowdiness” and recalling my youth, my heart flutters in a quiet joy, understanding and sharing about a one-time “craving for food” – the time when “however sour it was, the toad, guava, tamarind, and mango taste did not matter at all.”
Times have changed, and students nowadays have a more comfortable material life with more choices as compared to the previous generations. The scene where groups of students and friends “crowd together” for “wrapping and dipping” is a lovely and safe life activity in the eyes of today's parents.
Ms. Kieu and others in Thuan An have chosen banh ep as their livelihood and some even have bigger thoughts for Thuan An pressed cake. Why does it not “cross the sea”, which means reaching out to the world?
Many people laughed at the "out of bounds" thought of the owner of the project called "Thuan An Pressed Cake - Crispy Pizza That Conquers the World", why not? It turns out that the project won the first prize in the contest “The Provincial Innovative Startups 2021”. This is good news for the "industry" of Hue pressed cakes, but perhaps this comes as a total “surprise” and “excitement” to “avid fans of banh ep”.
When being asked if she knew that Thuan An pressed cake had got the first prize in a contest, Ms.Kieu burst into laughter and turned to her assistants who were busy flipping the frying pan over hot coals and asked for help. All of them hilariously replied: “Did Thuan An pressed cake travel abroad? A long time ago already!”
How confident and lovely she is! Those who cook with their hearts, understand, and love their food will always be calm like that. In the eyes of Ms. Kieu – “a banh ep artisan”, Thuan An pressed cake is also "the same" as "Pizza of Naples in the distant Italy".
Story: Xuan An - Photos: Dang Tuyen