For second generation Berks Countian, Vi Phan, Berks County Foodways are more than pretzels and pot pie. In addition to local favorites like potato filling and red beet eggs, Vi’s family’s Berks County culinary traditions include a rich inheritance of Vietnamese cuisine.
Banh bao generally isn’t made for a holiday or special time of year. You can buy it on the street any day of the week in Vietnam. However, not many people make it at home because preparing and cooking banh bao is a labor of love! So for Vi’s family, banh bao is a special treat reserved for family gatherings.
“When I was young, we only made banh bao when family from out-of-state would get together (about twice a year). It was too labor intensive otherwise. As time went on and more people left, my mother had less help. She still wanted to make banh bao on her own, so I started getting more involved. As a child, I would help cut the extra ingredients and assemble the buns, but now I’m in charge of making the dough too. I make the dough while my mom mixes the filling. I still have to master the filling part but I’m too busy making the dough! I enjoy making it and cherish the special bonding time I have with my mom when we do. It’s a lot of good feelings wrapped up into such a small bao.”
Banh bao is a sweet and savory Vietnamese bun made with seasoned pork or chicken, onions, eggs, mushrooms and vegetables. Banh bao often has Chinese sausage and a portion of a hard-boiled egg inside. All of the ingredients are prepared and assembled into a sweetened dough. For Vi and her family, chopping the vegetables; mixing and seasoning the meat; boiling, peeling and slicing the eggs; and preparing and proportioning the dough can take up to 8 hours of work. Once all of the ingredients are prepared, the fillings are lined up on a table and carefully assembled into small pockets of dough. The buns are sealed with a special twisting motion that takes some skill and time to master. The artfully-made buns are then steamed for about 15 minutes.
Vi recalls that, “every time we make this, my mom and aunts would look to see if any of the baos burst open on top. If they find one, they always say “it’s smiling!” and then they giggle EVERY TIME.”
“I know that I say “This is one of my favorite foods” to just about every Vietnamese dish my mom makes, but a fresh banh bao is really up there on the list. The fluffiness, ever-so-slight sweetness of the dough soaked with the juices from the pork filling makes my mouth water just thinking about it. You happily munch away and suddenly you hit the jackpot, Chinese sausage! It takes the flavor profile to a whole new level. Man, I love banh bao. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a fresh one, you know what I’m talking about.”