You can barely see the countertops at Ba Le and Cam Huong sandwich shops — they’re covered with a profusion of geometrically shaped banana-leaf packets, neon-colored jellies, and plastic glasses of pudding. But what the heck are all these things?
Snacks, says Thy Tran, a San Francisco-based food writer and private cooking instructor who specializes in French and Southeast Asian food (visit her Web site, WanderingSpoon.com). “In a hot climate like Vietnam, people eat constantly, and you eat a lot of smaller meals,” she explains. Though many of these snacks are sweet, they’re not necessarily desserts; Vietnamese meals traditionally end in fruit, not sugar-laden concoctions. But it wouldn’t be unconceivable to pick one up to eat with your banh mi.
Both cafes’ refrigerator cases contain dozens of little plastic cups of cheo, a coconut-milk pudding. Dip a spoon in your glass and you may find mung beans, agar-agar jellies, pearls of tapioca or sago (a palm starch), seaweed — even corn kernels. Many Vietnamese restaurants serve the most famous cheo, “three-bean cheo,” as a drink, with shaved ice, mung beans, red beans, and “green bean” (mung) noodles covered in coconut milk.
Another common sweet snack, says Tran, is banh it, sticky rice (or sticky rice flour) steamed in banana leaves. Some packets have mung beans at their core, some bananas (look for the cylindrical ones). Others are stuffed with pork or peanuts. Ask the counter person to help you pick one out.
Sticky rice also shows up, albeit dyed unnatural shades of orange, green, or yellow, on square Styrofoam plates wrapped in plastic. Called soi, this flavored sticky rice is commonly a breakfast dish or morning snack. The yellow rice is mixed with mung beans, the orange with dried fruit or fruit extract, and the green with essence of pandan, a highly aromatic ground leaf Tran calls “the vanilla of the tropics.”
Tran thinks that the mochi-like buns of sweet rice flour filled with mung beans — it’s the Vietnamese equivalent of marzipan or peanut butter — may be a Vietnamese-American snack picked up from the Chinese-American community. And Ba Le’s square beignets sprinkled with sesame seeds, like banh mi, may owe their origins to the French.
And then there are the banana chips, tapioca dumplings with salted coconut milk, candied nuts, tiny cupcakes — the supply seems inexhaustible. But the hundreds of snacks you can find in banh mi shops still can’t compare to the variety you’d see on the streets in Vietnam. “There are a million gazillion things you can eat,” Tran says. “You can’t walk more than twenty feet without finding something new.”