Bánh Bò Cow Cake – 3 of 365

The Cow Cake

While eating a street food lunch with some friends out on the sidewalk, a man on his hybrid bike turned pushcart rolled up behind us and motioned at its contents.  Who doesn’t enjoy a nice dessert, but is one bought from a pushcart in a Saigon alley necessarily the safest choice?  On offer were gelatinous triangles stuffed inside a fried doughnut looking pastry, and no thank you seemingly was not in this man’s vocabulary as he wasn’t just going to peddle on without a sale.  So I bit against my better judgment having no clue how this thing would taste or later settle in my stomach.

Our streetside pastry chef cut this grease bread in half, inserted the white chunk, and stuffed his creation into a small pink plastic bag.  I exchanged 8,000 Dong, or about 40 cents, for this crapshoot of a dessert and hoped for the best.  The white stuffing had the appearance of tripe but this was definitely a non meat product.  We all guessed tapioca or taro root.  The spongy texture lends a vague science experiment quality to it complete with little holes where gases had bubbled up out of it during the cooking process.  I did appreciate the tiny flecks of black which I will assume are flavor d’street.

The doughnut casing of this concoction is straightforward enough but leaves a definite grease streak in its wake.  I wrapped  up the unidentifiable food object in its pink carry case, and decided to take it home for further inspection.  Who better to ask for an explanation of this dessert than the girl at the front desk of my apartment.  Surely she’s downed one or two of these and must know what’s in it.

When I pulled this Vietnamese interpretation of a Boston Creme out of its pink bag, she inexplicably giggled while covering her mouth.  Have I brought home something so disgusting she has to laugh?  She then composed herself enough to write the words bánh bò and bánh tiêu on a scratch piece of paper.  My friends and I immediately recognized bò as the word for beef and asked her why it’s called beef.  She giggled some more and assured us it’s not beef though it is called beef.  Then again this is the same country where I saw vegetarian soup made with pork so anything is possible.  Only in Vietnam.

The Mobile Pastry Station

Our culinary liaison at the front desk didn’t lead us any further towards an answer so curiosity led me to the internet.  Voila…A few clicks explained it all without the giggling and uncertainty only ten minutes earlier.  Bánh bò literally means cow cake and the name derives from the texture of the cooked rice flour, yeast, water, and sugar that yield a cow innards like blob.  Bánh tiêu means hollow doughnut and this is the outer shell in which the cow cake rests.   Perhaps a better translation would be greasy piece of slightly sweet bread that leaves a sour oil slick on the tongue stuffed with a mostly tasteless spongy chunk of dubious texture.  The closest I can come to describing this in western terms would be a day old doughnut stuffed with warm coconut jello.

One never knows what surprises lurk out on the streets of Saigon.  Who knew these “hollow bread with cow cake” are such a staple on the street food circuit.   I am glad my daily wanderings randomly crossed paths with this food cart for I would have never otherwise known about this interesting treat.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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