As addictive as a heart-warming bowl of pho is, there are many other Vietnamese dishes we should try. One of those is banh tam bi.
Cuong Nguyen, chef and owner of Sydney's Hello Auntie restaurants, tells SBS Food, "I can talk about ca chem kho or even the awesome variations of banh canh, but a dish I have never seen sold by any Australian vendor is banh tam bi."
Nguyen says this dish evokes many memories of his home city of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta in the south of Vietnam. "Every time I eat it, it automatically transports me to where I was at the time."
The chef didn't set out for a career in the hospitality industry. Since Nguyen's been in Australia, he's played the trumpet for a youth symphony with jazz great James Morrison at the Sydney Opera House, presented his own fashion show and even released a record label at age 26. But now, at 39 years of age, Nguyen is known as the chef and owner of two Hello Auntie eateries (one's in Marrickville, the other's in Haymarket) and a co-owner of Banh Meats & Co. in Barangaroo.
Nguyen says there was no single moment that sparked his interest in food, but he's always appreciated how it connects him with his loved ones. "I remember being incredibly young and wanting to cook dinner for my family. I remember organising a roster for whose turn it was to cook dinner for my mother, father and brother. No matter where you come from, you come together for food," he says.
"No matter where you come from, you come together for food."
After his family moved from Vietnam to Australia in the 1980s, they didn't always eat Vietnamese food at the family dinner table. However, his mum kept cooking one particular dish: banh tam bi, a coconut tapioca noodle dish.
Nguyen says, "Banh tam bi reminds me of my childhood and is the first dish that comes to mind when people ask me about my childhood.
"It was the closest thing to helping me feel 'normal' and fitting in as a Vietnamese-born Aussie, because mum used spaghetti. I grew up in Australia in the '80s so racism was very prevalent and I grew up in a predominantly white suburb in Sydney."
"Banh tam bi reminds me of my childhood and is the first dish that comes to mind when people ask me about my childhood."
He says he remembers enjoying banh tam bi's fragrant herbs, textures and the rich coconut cream sauce with thinly sliced pork.
"It was always my favourite thing to eat growing up. It was always a treat for mum to source the ingredients. She would have to travel to Cabramatta whereas we lived in Newtown at the time."
When his mum used tapioca noodles, she'd serve them al dente and cold.
Nguyen explains that it doesn't matter too much whether you use tapioca or spaghetti for this dish. "The noodle texture comparison is negligible and it only adds visual aspects. If I made the dish with different noodles and did a blind tasting, both would be acceptable," he says. "I would wager that 50 per cent of Vietnamese foodies wouldn't be able to tell the difference."
His own dishes embrace both tradition and innovation. "I respect the essence of our cuisine as we come from a rich history of culture, but through food we are able to speak not only about where we come from, but can tell a story about where we are going," he says.
"Through this, [we are] able to write new pages in history by creating new dining experiences."
Banh tam bi
Serves 4 to 5
- 500 g-1 kg pork belly, boneless with skin on
- 500 ml water
- ½ tsp five spice mix
- 1 tsp salt
- Make sure the pork is fully submerged in a pot of water. Braising it will take about 20–40 minutes, depending on the thickness of your pork.
- The texture should be bouncy. Remove from water once it's cooked to your desired texture.
- Let it cool, before cutting into 4-6mm batons.
Glutinous rice powder
- 150 g glutinous rice (you can substitute with plain rice)
- Saute rice in a dry pan to roast the grains; be careful not to burn. Cool.
- Grind the rice into powder.
- Mix the rice powder together with the pork batons.
Note: You can also forgo this step and buy the rice powder instead. It's called bi and Vietnamese or other Asian grocers usually stock it.
- 440 ml coconut cream
- 20 ml rice flower
- 20 ml water
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp chicken powder
- ½ tsp salt
- In a saucepan, dissolve salt and sugar in coconut cream and simmer.
- Mix water and rice flour together, then add to the coconut cream and mix until the sauce thickens.
- Chill this mixture in the fridge.
- 300 ml fish sauce
- 300 ml vinegar
- 335 g sugar
- 225 g water
- 2 garlic, minced
- On low heat, dissolve water and sugar in a pot.
- Remove from heat then add fish sauce and vinegar and minced garlic. Add chilli if you wish.
- Chill this mixture in the fridge.
- 390 g tapioca
- 450 g rice flour
- 1.1 litre boiling water
- Place both flours into a mixing bowl large enough to knead dough in.
- Bring water to a boil, then add to the flour.
- Use a spatula to gradually mix the water and flour, until all the flour is absorbed. Be patient; this will take a bit of time. Resist the urge to add more water and use your hands once the mixture has cooled.
- Proceed to knead until you form a dough.
- Put aside and let it rest and cool.
- Once the dough is cool, roll into sheets to your desired thickness.
- Cut into strands that are ready to cook. Use rice flour to avoid the dough from sticking.
- To cook the noodles, place them into a pot of boiling water. When the noodles float to the top, they are ready.
- Remove noodles and place them into cold water. When all the noodles are cooked, rinse the residue starch then add oil to prevent them from sticking together.
- If you prefer the noodles hot, you can blanch before serving.
- If you are making blanched noodles days in advance, warm before serving.
- Noodles can be served hot or cold.
- 150 ml rice-bran oil or any vegetable-based oil
- 1 bunch shallots, sliced 2 mm thick
- Bring rice bran oil to about 80°C, then add to finely sliced shallots.
- Mix thoroughly, making sure the shallots have been blanched in the oil.
- Chill in the fridge.
To construct the dish
- Mint and sliced cucumber to garnish
- 2-3 bunches mint
- 2 Lebanese cucumbers
- All of the above components
- When all the prep has been done you can begin to build your bowl.
- Taste is very subjective so add the sauces to your liking.
- Mix all the ingredients in a bowl much like a salad. You can put the pork on the side if preferred.
Note: cucumber is for texture and mint will make it light and fragrant the better in my opinion.