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16 October 2011 / leggypeggy

Sesame rice crackers—a status symbol in Vietnam

It all starts with sifting the sesame seeds.

We had a few days in Hoi An, on Vietnam’s central coast. It’s a lovely quaint town, known for great shopping. In 24 hours or less, they’ll make all the clothes and shoes you can possibly ever need. But if traipsing from shop to shop isn’t tempting, it can be a challenge to find enough things to do to fill several days.

Poor John and I are great wanderers and spent two days enjoying the picturesque streets and buildings. Because we try to avoid going up and down the same street too many times, we headed across a small bridge to the An Hoi islet. It has plenty of inviting little streets, and it was down one of these that we encountered the sesame rice cracker factory.

I was gobsmacked and in heaven. Nothing quite like a new food adventure to get me snapping pictures and asking questions. It all started when I saw the crackers spread out for their first drying. Then I saw two women sifting sesame seeds. Then I stopped in my tracks and tried to take it all in. Finally, we went through the main gate and managed to give ourselves a mini tour of the ‘factory’. Everyone, every step of the way, was completely welcoming.

Although no one spoke English, it was easy enough to get the gist of what was happening. The seeds are sifted. A thin batter is made and the seeds are stirred in. Batter is then ladled on to a griddle and cooked quickly on both sides—sort of like a crepe. The fires for this stage of cooking are heated by sawdust that is constantly being shovelled in by the cook.

Once cooked, the wafers are then spread out on what looks like old screen doors. I have no idea how long these discs are allowed to dry, but we arrived around 4pm and a woman was bringing some in. It was a brilliantly sunny day and perhaps she had been doing that once an hour since morning. The semi-dried discs are then brought to another area where they are browned on both sides over a charcoal fire. There were fans blowing on the fires and the cooks, either to keep the fires hot or the cooks cool.

The finished crackers are then bagged—with bags holding anywhere from 5 to perhaps 50 pieces. Sales were wholesale and I saw a few people buying numerous large bags. As an indication of our thanks, we bought a bag of 20 for the bargain price of 40,000 dong or $2.

We walked back to Hoi An, with Poor John carrying the goodies, and almost immediately it was obvious that I might as well have hung a sign around his neck that read ‘This man is a hero’.

There were smiles, waves and thumbs-up from every direction—all focused on Poor John. Locals who spoke English called out ‘Oh, you have been to An Hoi’. Others stopped to chat and explain how the crackers are used—among other things, it is an important ingredient in Hoi An’s famous soupy noodle dish, Cao Lao. We went into a bookstore and a staff member there rushed to show us a Vietnamese cookbook with another recipe calling for these crackers. Of course, I bought the book.

In several kilometres, I don’t think there was a single local who saw us who didn’t acknowledge this purchase in some way. As we walked, I also noticed that not a single shop was selling sesame rice crackers. An Hoi must be the primary source, so it must be a real novelty when a tourist tracks down the factory and makes a purchase. Even the women at reception in our hotel were impressed.

We each ate a few crackers, which are slightly sweet, for breakfast the next two mornings, and gave the last of the package to the women at reception when we checked out. No sense ruining these delicious morsels by cramming them in a suitcase.

The one thing that surprised me when we carried the crackers back from the factory was that, in spite of the huge interest shown by locals, not one foreigner asked us what they were or where we got them. It’s true they looked a bit like poppadoms. But I haven’t seen poppadoms anywhere in South-East Asia, so I’d have been compelled to ask anyway.

The slideshow (starting with the women sifting sesame seeds) is in the order of the steps described above. Because I found the whole process so interesting, sometimes I have posted more than one photo of each step. It makes me hungry to watch. Hope I can track down a decent recipe when I get home. If I do, I’ll post it here.

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24 Comments

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  1. Louise M Oliver / Oct 16 2011 6:53 am

    Hi Peggy,
    They look really tasty. And what an interesting, but labour-intensive process. I’m glad you and Poor John supported the local economy. And, like you, I wonder why other tourists and foreigners didn’t comment on your packages or at least ask what they were. I’m with you; I’d really want to know. After all, it can be quite unusual to get right into the local mores on a trip so it’s really nice to discover something very local. But there’s no accounting for people of course.

    On a completely unrelated note, does Libby still work at the same place? When you posted recently about Frocktober, I sent an email to her work address with a couple of questions and the date for final donations. I haven’t heard back from her but she might be on leave or have changed jobs.

    ‘Hello’ as always to Poor John and looking forward to hearing more about your adventures. Hotels must be nice after so much camping.

    Take care.
    Best wishes always.
    Louise

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  2. Sy S. / Oct 16 2011 8:01 am

    Hello Leggy Peggy,

    Very good post on something local and a great find by you and John. Interesting that all the locals knew about the rice cracker factory but no tourist noticed your purchase.

    My tennis friend who is Vietnamese (born here, but family come to America during the Vietnam conflict) had visited Japan a few months ago. He and his wife brought back some Rice Crackers (Arare Japanese name) but it was not the ones in the factory you posted about. It was round small/medium size, soy sauce based, black sesame seeds and not sweet. Great tasting. Nona and I on food dot com have talked extensively about rice crackers.

    Sy S.

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    • Rosemary / May 2 2012 7:37 pm

      Just had an amazing monkfish appetizer at Le Colonial in Chicago and it was served with black sesame crackers. I’d love to order some of those cracker is I could find a source. They were not shaped but broken off chunks. Can you help?

      Rosemary

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      • leggypeggy / May 3 2012 10:34 pm

        Hi Rosemary, I love those crackers too, and have been looking for them in Canberra. So far, no luck, but will let you know if I find any useful information. Come to think of it, I wonder if Le Colonial would share the recipe, assuming they make their own.

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  3. leggypeggy / Oct 16 2011 9:41 am

    Hi Louise and Sy
    I knew you’d both be interested in the crackers. How could you resist? 🙂
    Louise, Libby is still at the NMA but has a slightly different email address. I have two different addresses for her and never remember which one is right or better. I’ll let her know you wrote.
    Sy, I thought immediately of you and Nona when I wrote about the Vietnamese crackers because I remembered your conversation on the arare version. I hope to find a recipe for those too.
    Cheers
    Peggy

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  4. Nona Shinagawa Myers / Oct 16 2011 7:56 pm

    They look amazing Peggy. looks like rice paper with sesame seeds. I’m so glad to see you are doing well after the awful accident.

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  5. Zarinah Adam / Oct 16 2011 9:53 pm

    Love it Peg, that’s the stuff I’d want to see, smell, taste, experience. xoxo

    Like

  6. Carol Wright / Dec 30 2011 9:49 am

    I had the pleasure of eating some Banh Da Hao Hang rice crackers with sesame seeds at my daughter’s house in Tucson. I live in Santa Fe, NM and can’t find them. They are made with just rice flour and sesame seeds,nothing else. Where can I find them? The only rice/sesame crackers I can find have other ingredients in them, which I don’t want. HELP. Thanks, Carol Wright

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    • leggypeggy / Dec 30 2011 6:19 pm

      Hi Carol
      I’m going to try making them at home. I’ll post the recipe here if I have any success. As for where to buy them—I have no idea. I’ve never seen them anywhere else in my travels.

      Like

  7. Jim Konopliski / Jan 15 2012 8:43 am

    I was introduced to these delicious cakes while on a recent visit to Nha Trang. My girlfriend took me to a local shop, (one of oh so many great small eateries!), where the specialty was “Mi Quang”.
    I love to cook, especially Asian dishes, so when i returned and searched for a recipe, the need for these sesame cakes became evident as they are a integral part of the dish. A search led me to your site. While unable to find a recipe, and still awaiting homemaking instructions from my girlfriend, I found “banh trang me den” at my local Asian market. I soaked them in water for about 1 hour until pliable, and then placed them on my broiler on high, careful watch is needed to prevent burning, but once completely brown, they offer a reasonable approximation of the real item, the trick seems to be complete browning, as if any areas remain white they are a bit tough and not “puffy”, once brown the rice seems to “pop”, providing that great crunchy texture.

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  8. Jim Konopliski / Jan 16 2012 6:10 am

    Jut a update on the “faux” rice cracker technique. Continued experimentation has made me realize that soaking in water is completely unnecessary, just pop them onto the broiler right out of the package, and having the broiler on low, up to the last minutes, and switching to high at that time, seems to allow “sneaking up” on that popping point much easier.

    And sorry for the oversight, my enthusiasm got a hold of me! Compliments on your great photographic work, you record great images, and your lifestyle is inspirational.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Jan 16 2012 8:57 am

      Hi JIm — Thanks so much for visiting the blog and for providing some advice on approximating the rice crackers. I love the idea of ‘sneaking up’ on food as a cooking technique. I suspect a whole cookbook could be done on that concept! 🙂

      Like

      • Jim Konopliski / Jan 19 2012 3:17 am

        iYour are welcome Peggy, I am looking forward to reviewing the remainder of your blog, as it inspires me, being a newbe traveler, I simply cannot seem to get enough, the same problem have with delicious Vietnamese food! I look forward to visiting the factory when I go to Hoi Ann in the future, thanks for the tip. Cheers!

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  9. leggypeggy / Jan 19 2012 1:45 pm

    Hi JIm,
    The factory is a little hard to find, so let me know when you go and I can try to describe where it is. As we walked along, we saw the women sifting sesame seeds first. Then we walked on and saw the crackers drying in the sun. In the end, I told Poor John I couldn’t resist going in for a closer look, and everyone was so gracious.
    I wonder what they do in the rainy season?

    Like

    • Jim Konopliski / Jan 19 2012 2:06 pm

      Hi Peggy, thanks, I certainly will, tentatively planning on returning in June. I love to walk and wander and let the muse take me, so I can appreciate how you must have felt coming upon your “find” of the factory. The people generally do indeed seem very friendly. My first visit to Vietman in July 2011, (Nha Trang), was marred by a very freakish theft incident that left me soured and caused me to cut my trip short. I returned to Nha Trang this Dec-Jan. to get back on the horse if you will, and realy was met with generally very warm and hospitable people, especially considering I know not one word of the language. I spent countless hours while my girlfriend was at work, wandering the back streets and far outskirts of Nha Trang on foot, always a little bit anxious, but ultimately rewarded with some instant hospitality in the form of tea, coffee, cigaretts, basic english conversation, and smiles. I saw many wonderful sights and met some really wonderful people. I’m still organizing my photos, and once I get it all sorted, I’l send you a link to their home, so you can get an idea of the place as seen through my lens. I happen to be at the computer presently gathering info for my upcoming Tet cooking adventure, namely, Banh Tet, I’ll let you know how it goes. It’s great to make your acquaintance and look forward to swapping stories. cheers, Jim

      Like

  10. leggypeggy / Jan 19 2012 7:37 pm

    Hi JIm,

    Great to meet you too. I doubt we’ll run out of stories to share.

    Bummer about the theft. Nha Trang is a popular tourist spot, so I suppose would-be thieves are drawn to all the potential targets. Poor John and I walked all over Nha Trang without incident.

    Good luck with your Banh Tet. We’re heading to Canberra’s Pho Phu Quoc for dinner—an unexpected invitation. Anh, a Vietnamese friend of mine, says it is the only Vietnamese restaurant in all of Australia that her mother (who lives Sydney) will eat in. Smart lady. Anh also reckons my ‘Vietnamese Food & Cooking’ by Ghillie Basan is the best cookbook she’s seen on her cuisine.

    Cheers, Peggy

    Like

  11. Sandi / Feb 9 2012 12:00 pm

    This site has a recipe for using the Banh Tran Me. It states you do not put them in water or fat. You just put them in the microwave.

    http://indonesiaeats.com/vietnamese-stir-fried-baby-clams-with-sesame-rice-crackers-h%E1%BA%BFn-xao-xuc-banh-trang/

    Like

    • Jim Konopliski / Feb 9 2012 1:24 pm

      Great find AND recipe! I know what is on the menu for tomrrow! Thanks!

      Like

    • leggypeggy / Feb 9 2012 2:15 pm

      Thanks Sandi for such a useful link. I’ll have to look more closely for these crackers in our local Asian shops. I haven’t seen them before.

      Like

  12. Sandi / Feb 22 2012 12:44 pm

    Hi All,

    These crackers were just called Sesame Rice Paper in our local shop.

    Like

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