Lincoln Tan discovers Auckland’s hidden restaurant dishes – Banh cuon at Ha Noi Eatery

Herald ethnic affairs reporter and dedicated foodie Lincoln Tan introduces you to a world of hidden restaurant delights around Auckland.

In Vietnam, Linh Nguyen grew up eating platefuls of banh cuon which her mum prepared from freshly made rice sheets for breakfast, before she went to school.

Now 29 and a mother herself, Nguyen says she never tires of her family’s banh cuon – and feels lucky that mum, Le Thi Bich, 57, has also moved to Auckland and is still serving the dish at her little food court stall here.

Banh cuon literally translates as “rolled cakes”, made from steamed fermented rice sheets that are extremely thin, delicate and have been stretched over a pot of boiling water.

“It’s my favourite breakfast and it is also extremely popular everywhere in Vietnam, but different regions make them differently and what I like is my mum’s Hanoi-style ones,” Nguyen said.

The rice sheets are stretched a lot thinner and the rolls are lighter and more delicate in Hanoi than those from other parts of the country.

When Nguyen first moved to New Zealand as an international student in 2009, she said her mother’s banh cuon was one of the things she missed most.

So when her parents, who were operating a small restaurant back home, migrated here in 2015, Nguyen suggested that they open their own eatery business.

So, the Ha Noi Corner was opened in Queens Court in 2017, and was renamed Ha Noi Eatery this year.

Le is a gentle woman who is rather shy. Because she does not speak English fluently, she was happy to leave her daughter to do most of the talking.

“We wanted to share the authentic flavours of Vietnamese food from the north,” said Nguyen.

“Also we wanted to show there’s so much more to Vietnamese food than just pho noodles and banh mi bread rolls.”

In Le’s version of the dish, the steamed rice sheets are cooked with seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushroom and crispy fried shallots. It is served with slices of cha lua, or Vietnamese pork sausage.

The banh cuon is enjoyed by dunking it into a tangy dipping sauce called nuoc cham, which is a concoction of lime juice, fish sauce and chilli.

At $12, the price for the meal is really very reasonably priced considering the craftsmanship that goes into its preparation.

For the business, Le uses a simplified method to prepare banh cuon, which is still good but Nguyen says it is not as elegant or supple as when it is made with steam heat.

“Back in Vietnam, mum would spread the rice batter out onto a fabric stretched over a pot of steaming water,” Nguyen said.

“She would then use a long thin stick, slide it under the rice sheet, and lift it off the fabric. Not only do I like to eat banh cuon, I love seeing it being made. There is a lot of labour involved.”

Often for her breakfast, Nguyen said she would have her banh cuon plain and without any fillings – just the dipping sauce.

The dish is readily available on the street in her home town of Hai Duong, about 70km from Hanoi, and is usually served very early in the morning as a cheap and fast breakfast to customers.

For a fuller Vietnamese street food experience, Ha Noi Eatery also serves chao (Vietnamese rice congee with toppings that include clams, prawn or meat), cha gio (a Hanoi version of Vietnam’s famous fried spring rolls), and bun ca ca vien (rice vermicelli in fish broth with lightly fried fish fillet, fish balls and dill).

Also a favourite is the bun rieu cua, or rice vermicelli with crab meat paste, pork roll, tofu and vegetables in a special seafood broth.

• Ha Noi Eatery, G16/368 Queen Street, Auckland CBD

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