Before machine-made banh trang (rice paper) became popular, my aunt, Di Yen, and cousin, Trinh, produced rice paper in Viet Nam by hand and sold it locally in their town just north of Saigon. On my last visit back, I asked them to show me how they used to make it. They prepared a special batch from stone-ground, whole-grain red rice. Rice bran, stored in that big metal drum, drops down to fuel an earthen stove. Gently steaming water rises through tightly stretched cloth and cooks the very thin, smooth rice batter in seconds. My cousin, who hasn’t done this for a year, still remembers the rhythmic choreography of stirring, ladling, spreading, rolling and unrolling. Of course, she makes it all look so easy!
Each mat, as it’s covered by still warm and wet banh trang, is arranged in the sun so that the rice paper can dry completely into the delicate, translucent rounds that we love so much. Look closely and you might notice that the roller is covered with the leg fabric from an old pair of jeans.
(The voices you hear are my mom and me.)
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In the nearby town of Hoc Mon, Di Yen visits her favorite rice shop. For our small batch, she purchases 10 kilos.
After soaking the rice overnight, Di Yen drains it well and then transfers it to a cooler to carry to the local rice grinder.
I requested whole grain rice paper, so my aunt decided on red rice. It’s often labeled cargo rice in US, for the bulk shipping method used to transport it.
Cao Van Dien is the neighborhood rice grinder. For a small fee, he and his wife, Kim Loan, will set up their electric-powered stone grinder and grind your rice for you. It’s very unusual to grind red rice, so he’s checking the texture often as his wife adjusts the tightness of the grinding wheels.
Having estimated the amount of water required by experience and feel, Dien now stirs the rice gently to ensure it feeds evenly into the stone wheels. My aunt ended up also trying out a half polished, half whole-grain mix, so they decided to grind that batch first.
The very last of the rice batter getting pushed down to the spout. At the top, you can see the edge of one of the grinding stones.
The grinder turns very quickly, and it takes mere minutes to accomplish what could have taken hours before. (Grinding rice was my mom’s least favorite chore when she was a kid.) The batter has tiny flecks of delicate pink from the red rice bran.
The ground rice batter sits for another day. Adding rain water helps achieve the right body and texture. Then, it’s just a matter of spreading it super thin over a piece of fabric, letting it steam for a few seconds, removing it intact with a wide roller, and then unrolling intact onto a bamboo mat. All the while, of course, keeping an eye on that fire that’s heating your stove. Simple!
The stove is fueled by rice bran only. A thin poker helps push more as needed to keep an even flame.
Adding rice bran to the stove’s hopper.
The ladle’s flat bottom side helps spread the rice batter thinly and evenly over the tautly stretched fabric. The timing is precisely calibrated with each shop’s unique set-up. Here, Trinh holds aside the previous round; she’ll unroll it onto the drying mat right after covering the round she’s forming right now with the bamboo lid behind her.
The little orange cup portions batter, one and a half scoops for this particular shop.The large ladle is already pre-filled with just enough batter.
Even with its bran, the red rice creates translucent, paper-thin banh trang.
The neighbor across the street kindly lets us spread our rice paper across her sunny fence.
After drying a little in full sun, the rounds are moved to a shaded area. Slowing down the drying time keeps the rice paper from warping. As they finish drying, they unstick from the mats with a gentle popping sound, like slow rain on a quiet morning.
I’m getting the hang of spreading the rice paper thinly, but I forgot to stir the batter in the bowl and fill the ladle before I start lifting the wet round. Thanks, Di Yen!
How many Tran family members does it take to help Thy unroll her first round of rice paper?
When spread a tiny bit thicker and eaten while still fresh, the rice paper rounds are called banh uot. This is a very popular breakfast dish. Di Yen drizzles scallion oil on the rounds I made (since they’re so conveniently thicker than usual), and we all enjoy their silken texture with a simple soy dipping sauce.
Hell money glued onto the water urn, in case the gods of prosperity and commerce are feeling a bit thirsty.