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Friday, August 7, 2009

Banh beo - steamed rice cakes with cotton shrimp

Today is saturday. This is the time of the week when we finally can spend more time in the kitchen as we normally do during the week, and cook for friends and relatives. So here comes today’s special, a typical speciality of Hue’s cuisine, if not the most typical: The Banh Beo. The Banh Beo is usually served among other steamed specialties like Banh Bot Loc, Banh Nam, etc.

Banh Beo
The recipe is part of my father’s family legacy, and I got this recipe from my father’s mother an excellent cook and a native from Hue. She had written a collection of her recipes in a notebook for her numerous children and I remember the day my father solemnly handed me this previous manuscript, saying: "you're the only one cooking the Vietnamese traditional cuisine in the family, I am sure you will get something out of these". Unfortunately, the manuscript was written in Vietnamese. Furthermore, the recipes were anything but rigorously quantified directions. However, it certainly described valuables tricks and techniques she had spent her lifetime to invent or collect.

Banh Beo - steamed rice cakes with pork and shrimps id=
Anyway, it took my five years before I could finally find in my stepfather, who was also a Hue native and a great great cook, the ideal translator.
He went to Vietnam as he did every year, and came back six months later with the complete translation of the previous manuscript in his luggage. Actually it was much more than a translation: he enriched the recipes with valuable quantified directions and filling-in the gaps. During a whole week, we didn’t leave the kitchen until we had resurrected together one by one, recipe by recipe, all these masterpieces of Vietnamese gastronomy, these treasure of culinary and secular tradition. At the end of that week, we even invited my father and his brothers and sisters to come in my place and taste again the cooking of their mother, who had passed away 15 years earlier.
Do I need to describe how the emotion overwhelmed these three generations that a few dishes of traditional cooking had brought together? I believe that this episode is a brilliant testimonial to the importance of cooking in our Vietnamese family.

Among all the Hue’s cuisine specialties, this one is undoubtedly my favorite. I don’t know any restaurant in Paris that serves a decent Banh Beo. I knew one from the Opera district, but it had closed two years ago.

The principle of the recipe is very simple: steamed rice cakes topped with ‘shrimps cotton', crushed crispy pork’s fat and green onions. Cotton shrimp is the most interesting part of the recipe: it is obtained by rapidly drying gently crushed shrimps over a hot pan, transferring it back to the mortar and repeating this operation several times until the shrimp’s texture becomes like cotton. The recipe is not particularly complex, but surely requires a lot of work. Then of course, comes the Nuoc Mam sauce, which is very specific to this dish.

Ingredients for 40 cakes
You can usually serve 4 cakes per person, but I guess that some would get frustrated if they could not have some more.

For the dough
  • 2 bowl of rice flour
  • 2 bowl of hot water
  • 2 bold cold water
For the topping and sauce
  • 10 young onions
  • 100gr of pork fat (cut out from the pork brisket)
  • 6 tbsp of dried shrimp
  • 2 minced red chilis
  • 4 thinly chopped garlic cloves
  • 5 sugar cubes
  • Nuoc Mam
  • 15 fleshy shrimps
  • 1 big shallot, finely chopped


We begin by preparing the dough.

  1. In a large bowl, place the rice flour, add hot water and mix well without leaving any lumps forming.
  2. When the mixture is completely liquid, slowly add cold water, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Allow the paste to rest for at least half on hour.

Preparation cotton shrimp and topping
  1. Boil three glasses of water in a saucepan and dip the shrimp very quickly, so they are barely cooked. Save the cooking broth for later.
  2. Transfer the cooking broth in a bowl and allow the dried shrimps to swell for twenty minutes.
  3. Drain cooked shrimps removing the shells and deveining. Keep the shells of the shrimps to improve the broth.
  4. With the flat of a knife, crush the shrimps.
  5. Heat a non-stick pan, and transfer the mortar content in it. Stir constantly. The aim is to dry the shrimps, not to cook them. If the pan gets too hot, remove from the heat.
  6. Transfer the shrimps back to the mortar and crush gently.
  7. Repeat this operation 4 or 5 times, until a the shrimps turn pink and their texture look like cotton. Reserve the shrimps cotton in a bowl. Cover the bowl with cellophane to prevent the cotton from drying, and keep it in the fridge.
  8. Remove the dried shrimps from the broth an drained using paper towel.
  9. Thinly chop the dried shrimps (eventually with a blender) until it turns into an orange powder. Set aside in a bowl.
  10. Chop the pork fat into small pieces.
  11. Transfer to a frying pan and heat (medium heat) stirring constantly until the fat produces oil, and the crispy pork fat get a nice golden-brown color.
  12. Drain trough a sieve and return the oil to the frying pan.
  13. Chopped thinly the crispy pork fat with a knife, and reserve in a bowl.
  14. Remove the white part of the green onions and mince into 5mm long sections.
  15. Thinly chop the shallot.
  16. Heat the pork fat oil, and when the oil is hot, add the green onions and the shallot. Stir quickly and remove for heat.
Preparation of the Nuoc Mam sauce
  1. Return the broth to a saucepan,
  2. add the shrimps shells and allow to simmer for 15 minutes.
  3. Dissolve 5 sugar cubes in the saucepan,
  4. add the thinly chopped garlic. From now on, the sauce must not boil.
  5. Add the Nuoc Mam (10 tbsp should be fine) until it fits your taste.
  6. You might as well add one thinly sliced red chili, depending on your taste and experience.
  7. Finally add one tbsp of shrimps cotton, and one tsp of chopped dried shrimps to the broth and reserve.
The sauce is ready.

Baking the rice flour cakes
Traditionally, each Banh Beo is cooked in a small hollow plate.
Some time ago, my father got me a curious steam cooking pot at the flea market. It is unclear where it comes from or what it is intended for, but it is just perfect to cook Banh Beo cakes. Besides, it allows me to cook 20 cakes in a row, thus in four minutes!
Here is a picture of the pot. If anyone knows what is purpose is, just tell me, it is a mistery to me, since the product is clearly made in France.
The pot is composed of a stack of trays with 4 hollow cups each, and the whole fits in a steamer with valve.

If you do not have this equipment, a couscous seamer pots will do it.

  1. With a paper towel, grease the pans well with the fat pork oil. It is important to ensure that the cakes won’t stick to the mold after cooking.
  2. Using a small ladle, fill each plate with paste (approximately 3mm height of paste). The dough will rise, and there must be enough place in the plate.
  3. In a large Couscous pot, boil water in the lower part.
  4. Once the water boils, place the steamer on top, and put the small banh beo plates in that upper part. Close the lid and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Cooking is complete when all the cake has become translucent. The cakes must be firm and translucid.
Put the plates on a tray, it will be served on the table after the topping is set.

Adding the topping
  1. With a small spoon, spread a little pork fat oil on top of each cake.It will help to keep the shrimps cotton in place.
  2. Add a little crispy pork fat
  3. Add the cotton shrimp
  4. Add a little bit of dried shrimp powder
  5. Finally add a few slices of young onions from pork fat oil
The cake should look like the picture above.

This dish should be served warm, as starter. In Vietnam, it is often server along with a plate of sliced Cha Lua (vietnamese pork sausage). You can buy it from asian stores, although it is not as good as the one which is served in Hué cuisine and which contains more pepper. Anyway…

And voilà, you're ready for a memorable meal. I wanted to publish this recipe a long time ago already, but as you can see, it takes a long time to transcript. Besides, I didn’t have the photos to illustrate. A few days ago, I cooked some banh beo, took the photos, and even more, I filmed it. Sorry it is in French, I will someday add some subtitles. Or maybe I can find some nice fellow to volunteer for this task.

I have the impression of having accomplished something great today.


  1. Your "curious pot" is a IDLI STEAMER, idlis being a south Indian steamed cake prepared from soaked raw rice and soaked skinless [i.e. hulled] seeds of the urad bean, Vigna mungo. They are ground separately, the latter finer than the former and fermented to a particular point, then steamed in these shapes, eaten with SAMBAR and a coconut chutney. CHENNAI IDLI & KANCHIPURAM IDLI are two of the most well-known types.

  2. I love banh beo! I'm Chinese but grew up eating Chinese and Vietnamese food. Thanks so much for the recipe... although it looks like a lot of work to make the shrimp topping.

    I also love idlis. I had an Indian roommate who's parents made awesome idlis! You should try making those as well.

  3. Kha - I was searching for images and happened upon your blog. It is beautiful and your table seems to be a place to be! I enjoyed the beautiful photographs of many of my favorite dishes. I am a Vietnamese home cook and enjoy sharing love with family and friends by way of food. I have a niece currently living in Paris who is in culinary school and has the same food passions as you. :)Thank you for sharing your family recipes. I shall look forward to visiting your blog often.

  4. Kha, I love your video. At first I was reading the directions and thought it was a bit complicated but when I saw the video, it was so easy. Thank you...and keep posting! :)

  5. During a whole week, they didn't leave the kitchen until they had resurrected together after the other, recipe by recipe, all these masterpieces of Vietnamese gastronomy, these treasure of culinary and secular custom.
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  6. wow, this is beautiful! I've never had this before but definitely sounds amzing!
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  7. I enjoyed reading your blog ~ thanks for posting such useful content.

    Used Kitchen Equipment

  8. This was the most comprehensive recipe for banh beo I have seen so far. You did a great job of translating all of that, as I'm sure it was difficult for you since English is most likely not your first (Vietnamese?) and second (French) language. It was so detailed and you can see the years of tradition that went into making the history of this cake. The background story you wrote on it was so interesting and intriguing and really adds depth to the story. Thank you for taking the time to translate such a beautiful recipe for the world to share. Happy New Year to you!