Sometimes the most mundane of journeys can unexpectedly veer off the trail into a world previously unknown to us. All this time I have been flying back and forth between Saigon and seaside Quy Nhon on the same route following the same script and never knew a whole underworld of leaf wrapped snacks awaited below. I have made the most random (well, for me at least) food discovery at the most random place…my airplane cabin. An airport worker dropped off a large plastic bag full of green pyramids in the galley about the same time I was coming up the stairs from the ramp. Curiosity got me, and I asked the purser what they are called. Without missing a beat Mr. Thai quickly explained these are Bắp Nướng. The other flight attendant affirmed this as did another about an hour later. Hallelujah…finally the correct term for a food without any lengthy debate or multiple suggestions!
Unwrapping the outer banana leaf layer unveiled a plastic wrapped green morsel. With 4 sets of Vietnamese eyes staring up at me I took a bite into the sticky outer shell with its dry insides as they waited with baited breath. I guess it’s not every day an American consumes the most local of snacks. Not bad at all actually I can report, and relief passed over my Vietnamese friends’ faces that I had quite enjoyed this most local of tastes. But amidst their celebration that an American palate can enjoy these foods, I made the fatal mistake of asking the source of these 25 cent pyramids. Ever so helpful, Mr. Thai offered, “From the lady who sit in the street and make it.” Oh great, I have just unwrapped and consumed one of these sticky morsels without ascertaining the level of sanitation in its preparation. This will teach me to look before I leap if this turns out to be the little bite size nugget that reduces me to a bedside IV drip of Immodium.
After a crew swap later in the day, our new purser spied an uneaten bánh ít in the flight deck and couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. She explained that mung beans and coconut among other ingredients are steamed in the leaves to produce this special snack only found in middle Vietnam. People gift these carefully wrapped pyramids to family and loved ones and being a present not found nationwide, bánh ít holds some dear meaning.
So I got to thinking about this special food only steamed up in this area. Were this America, some entrepreneur in it just for a quick buck would have somehow found a way to mass produce these coast to coast. That authentic leaf pyramid crafted from two different leaf rectangles? Gone. In its place we’d find plastic sheets cut down to leaf form and injection molded into fake looking three dimensional triangles. That sweet filling inside the sticky steamed leafy shell of the actual bánh ít? Gone as well. In its place we’d find high fructose corn syrup stuffed inside some carnuba wax casing dyed green supposed to resemble steamed leaves. That special joy of giving and receiving bánh ít lá gai? Gone, too. In its place plastic bags full of mediocrity would burst from the shelves of every WalMart across our fruited but now artificial plains.
I like Mr. Thai’s version the best “from the lady who sit in the street and make it.” It’s the little things made with care that are best and after seeing the detail and hard work put into making just one of these, I can see why receiving one is considered such a special gift. I feel honored my cabin crew shared one of theirs with me today.