Vietnam rice paper artisans roll with tradition

By AFP
Published: September 24, 2017
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A dish holds rice paper rolls filled with sugar at a home in Thuan Hung Village in the Mekong Delta. The village is renowned for the quality of the rice paper produced by the villagers who take great pride in their homemade craft. PHOTO: AFP

A dish holds rice paper rolls filled with sugar at a home in Thuan Hung Village in the Mekong Delta. The village is renowned for the quality of the rice paper produced by the villagers who take great pride in their homemade craft. PHOTO: AFP

CAN THO, VIETNAM: Stuffed, rolled, baked or fried: rice paper rules in food-obsessed Vietnam, where diners have spurned factory-made versions for homespun ones, propping up a thriving cottage industry in the Mekong Delta.

They’re a staple on dinner tables from north to south, eaten fresh with fish, fried with pork, or baked on an open flame and eaten like crackers — a popular bar snack.

PHOTO: AFP

But regardless of how they’re prepared, one thing most people in Vietnam agree on: homemade is always better.

“It’s better than the factory version, try it, it’s tastier,” Nguyen Thi Hue told AFP, offering a baked coconut version at her roadside snack stop in southern Can Tho province.

She sources her ‘banh trang’ in nearby Thuan Hung village, known for producing some of the finest in the Mekong Delta, long renowned as the “rice bowl of Vietnam”.

Ha Thi Sau (top) pours a rice and sesame mixture onto a hot fire stove as her 16-year-old daughter Dang Thi Bich Thien (bottom) rolls rice paper onto a mat for drying at their home in Thuan Hung Village in the Mekong Delta. PHOTO: AFP

Some families earn a living making rice paper, even as factories have popped up producing creative flavours like salted shrimp, coconut or versions made with the notoriously potent durian fruit.

“Customers prefer those produced handmade in the village. We don’t use chemicals, they’re just natural,” said 26-year-old Bui Minh Phi, a third-generation rice paper maker in Thuan Hung.

He can earn $65 per day spinning the trade, or double that during the busy lunar new year period.

It’s a common sentiment in Vietnam, where many diners eschew fast food joints for home-style restaurants serving pho noodle soup or banh mi sandwiches like their grandmothers might have made it.

A vendor takes a nap after the morning rush at a market where rice paper is sold in Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta. PHOTO: AFP

Rice paper making is a matter of family heritage for many like Ha Thi Sau.

On a recent morning in Thuan Hung, she tutored her daughter on the age-old technique she learned from her aunt: pour the sweetened batter — a secret family recipe — onto a pan, before transferring to a bamboo mat.

PHOTO: AFP

The operation remains a family affair: Sau’s son-in-law feeds the fire with rice husks, while her 83-year-old mother washes dishes on the river bank. Though other jobs are available in her village — once a rural backwater now dotted with modern cafes and mobile phone shops — she doesn’t dream of abandoning her trade.

“I’ve been making rice paper for so long, I don’t want to leave it for another job,” she said, as the scent of coconut wafted in the air.

 

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