This recipe is dear to my heart, because bánh đúc mặn it's one of my grandpa's favorites. I've always been very close to my paternal grandparents because they took care of me when my parents were at work when I was younger (My maternal grandparents were still in Vietnam at the time). I see them much less now that I don't live in Chicago anymore, but I'd always visit on the holidays. I kept promising my grandpa I'd make bánh đúc for him, but never found the time. This past weekend, he got sick and was hospitalized, so I flew home last minute to visit him, and yes, I finally made the bánh đúc!
Bánh đúc is a steamed cake that's usually made with rice flour and coconut milk. It can be a sweet dish or a savory dish. The sweet dishes are usually flavored with pandan and served with more coconut milk. This savory version of the cake, called bánh đúc mặn (mặn means salty) is topped with a carrot and ground pork mixture and drizzled in nước mắm pha, or a fish sauced based dipping sauce.
Water chestnut flour
This recipe subs water chestnut flour for rice flour. Water chestnuts are boiled, peeled and then dried and ground up into a coarse, chalky flour. The starch is a great thickening agent and makes a really crispy batter for deep frying foods too.
Because the texture of this flour is a bit firmer than plain rice flour, there's no need to steam the bánh đúc. It's a great shortcut! You can find water chestnut flour at any Asian grocery store, or online.
Another ingredient you might be unfamiliar with that plays a starring role in this dish is preserved cabbage. It's very salty, and is often used to flavor dishes. You'll need to rinse it first to get rid of some of the salt before adding to our bánh đúc. This can also be found at an Asian grocery store or online!
I wrote about dried shrimp in my recipe for Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup (Bún Riêu). These shrimp have been sun dried until they're very small, and last forever. I keep mine in the freezer after I've opened the bag. Because they are dried, the impart a very concentrated umami flavor to dishes. They usually always require re-soaking before using in any dish. As always, you can buy them online as well as at any Asian grocery store.
Water chestnut cake with pork topping (Bánh đúc mặn): Step-by-step instructions
For the bánh đúc
Mix together the water chestnut flour, rice flour, coconut milk, water and salt. Heat on medium, stirring constantly until the mixture is thickened. It will be the texture of thick vanilla pudding.
Spoon the mixture into an 8''x11'' (2 qt) casserole dish and smooth out the surface. Let this cool completely to room temp before slicing.
For the topping
Soak the dried shrimp in some warm water and set aside.
Wash and peel the carrots. Dice the onion and scallions while you're waiting for the shrimp to soak. Then, add your carrots, preserved cabbage and shrimp to a food processor. Pulse until everything is finely minced.
In a large pan on medium heat, sweat the onions until they are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the pork. Break up the ground pork into little pieces with your spatula.
When you no longer see any pink in the meat (about 3-4 minutes), add the carrot mixture. Continue to cook and mix well until carrots are tender. Since they are minced finely, it will only take about 5 minutes. Add the scallions last and turn off the heat.
For the nước mắm pha
Nước mắm pha, also known as nước chấm (literally, water for dipping) shows up EVERYWHERE in Vietnamese cuisine. Making a well balanced nước mắm pha is a rite of passage. With the right ratio of sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, a really good nước mắm pha can be good enough to drink.
The ratios are simple: One part fish sauce, one part sugar, two parts water, a few birds eye chili peppers, garlic and enough lime juice to mellow everything out.
Once the bánh đúc has cooled completely, cut it into cubes and top with the pork topping. Spoon as much nước mắm pha as you want over the cakes and enjoy!