My husband, John, and I live in upstate New York, and most of the retired people in our area are “snowbirds,” who head south to spend the winter in warmer, snow-free states. John and I head all the way to Asia for three months. We find Asia reasonable, cost-wise, and enjoy the diversity of cultures. And we like the flexibility of wintering for a few weeks each in several countries.
Last January, we were in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam. We’d been there several times and wanted to revisit the Cao Đài Temple and the Củ Chi Tunnels, an immense network of connecting underground tunnels that were part of military campaigns during the Vietnam War.
The Cao Đài Temple is the center of the Caodaist church, an indigenous religion that incorporates the teachings of many religions. The first time we visited the temple was in 1998. It was as colorful as I remembered.
The biggest change we found on this trip was at the Củ Chi Tunnels. The part of the tunnel that we visited in 1998 is now open only to Vietnamese. There’s also a new area that’s as been made handicapped-accessible, with visitors entering via a gift shop. Also, other activities such as a rifle range have been added.
We wanted a hotel in HCMC close to the airport, so we booked a few days at the Parkroyal Saigon (309B-311 Nguyen Van Troi Street, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; phone +84 8 3842 1111 or, in the US, 877/237-7838, www.parkroyalhotels.com/en/hotels-resorts/vietnam/saigon.html).
A standard room cost $88 a night, but we upgraded to an Orchid Club room at $137. The Orchid Club room price included airport/hotel transfers, breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails plus laundry for up to four garments per day. It was a great deal and we liked the relaxing atmosphere in the Orchid Club Lounge, especially during afternoon tea when there was an assortment of tea sandwiches.
We commented to the waitress that the most common dessert in Vietnam was fresh fruit, but seldom cakes or pies. She told us that many Vietnamese don’t have ovens. Also, they don’t have a “sweet tooth” like Westerners. She said that her favorite dessert is bánh bò hấp, also called “cow cakes” because the word bò means “cow.” Her mother told her the word bò also means “crawl” because when the cakes are steamed, they “crawl” up the side of the pan.
When tried this dessert we loved the light and tasty “cow cakes.” They looked relatively easy to make and our waitress was sure the pastry chef would love to show us how to. The next day, pastry chef Nguyen Thanh Ngoan and his helper Nguyen Thu Nhi showed us and I found out it was not as simple as I’d thought! – Story and photos by Sandra Scott, RFT SE Asia Correspondent
Bánh Bò Hấp (Vietnamese Rice Cakes)
1 ¾ cup rice flour
3 tbsp corn flour (or tapioca flour)
2 tbsp rice wine
1/3 cup coconut water
½ tsp salt
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
optional — food coloring
1 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tsp sugar
dash of salt
1 tbsp rice flour
1 tbsp water
1 ¾ cups coconut milk
3 tbsp sugar
For the Bánh Bò Hấp, 12 hours ahead of time, mix rice flour and corn flour and set it aside. In a small pan, add rice wine, coconut water and salt and bring to a boil. Cool for five minutes, then add it to the flour mix and stir until smooth. A drop of food coloring can be added, if desired. Strain if lumpy. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside (not in the refrigerator) for 12 hours.
After the 12 hours, combine water and sugar in a medium pan and bring to a boil. Boil just until the sugar is dissolved, then cool for five minutes. Stir into the rice/corn mix.
In a steamer, heat water to boiling. Brush small dishes or forms with oil and place in a steamer. Cover and steam for two minutes. Ladle batter into the dishes, then cover. Steam for seven minutes or more, depending on the sizes of the dishes. When the center of each cake rises, remove from steamer. Repeat with any remaining batter. (If the steamer has a metal lid, remove any water off the lid to prevent water from dripping onto the cakes.)
To make the Sesame Sprinkle, place sesame seeds in a pan at medium heat. Toast until light brown. Set aside. When cool, add sugar and a dash of salt, and stir.
To make the Coconut Sauce, mix rice flour and water in a sauce pan. Add coconut milk and bring to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, slowly stirring until it’s the consistency of cream. Remove from heat and stir in sugar to taste. Strain the mixture to eliminate any lumps.
Plate each cake, sprinkle with the sesame seed mix, top with dollops of coconut sauce and serve.
Note: Cakes can be made ahead and refrigerated but should be steamed again for one minute before serving.