This column is underwritten with generous support from United Noodles, Minnesota’s largest Asian grocery store, awarded “Best International Grocery” by City Pages in 2014, 2016, and 2020. Chandra Walbolt is a professional chef with experience at several restaurants in the Twin Cities, and she currently serves as a manager at Union Hmong Kitchen. She will soon be the Executive Sous Chef at Yia Vang’s Vinai in Northeast Minneapolis.
I just had a birthday dinner at my aunt’s the other day. I sat at a large wooden oval table and it was covered with whole fried fish, white and sticky rice, stewed beef tongue, and a store bought birthday cake with funfetti (I’m assuming just in case my American-born self wouldn’t like any of the authentic Khmer food). The fish was probably my favorite. The two fish laid side by side, head on and everything. One was swimming in a pungent bath of prahok (a fermented fish paste, this specific one was mixed with Thai eggplant and herbs), and the other fish under a mountain of what my mom calls “ginger pork.”
With all this being said, as I was leaving something caught my eye and made me gasp in excitement. Something even more mouth-watering than ginger pork and whole fried fish… Perfect little golden sesame balls (Banh Cam). I haven’t had or even seen one of these since I was a kid. My mom saw my eyes light up, laughed, and gave me a sandwich bag filled with them. I couldn’t wait, I took a bite out of one as soon as they were in my hands. Just like I remember, light and crispy outside, sweet and chewy on the inside. I had to learn how to make these myself.
The most characteristic part of Banh Cam is the mochi-like dough that crisps on the outer shell, and is so delicately sweet. This dough is made with a combination of rice flours, wheat flour, and potato flakes. The rice flour is what gives it its memorable texture.
Rice flour is naturally gluten free. It is most often sold as “Rice Flour” or “Glutinous Rice Flour”, which despite the name, doesn’t contain gluten. There are a few different ways of producing rice flour, and changes between regular and glutinous. But at the end of the day, it’s all essentially finely ground rice grains. Rice flour is widely used to make noodles for soups and can also act as a thickener for broths or sauces. It’s also used as a substitute for gluten free cooking and baking, but the texture is closer to corn starch than it is wheat flour.
Rice flour is popularly used in, but not limited to, Southeast Asian cuisine because of how easily rice patties grow in the tropical and rainy weather. Harvesting happens when the seedlings of the rice crop mature and turn golden brown. The grains are then separated and dried and either bagged up and sold or ground into the magical rice flour.
Rice flour can be found in most grocery stores and definitely all Asian markets.
I keep it in an air-tight container and stored in a cool and dry place.
Anyway, back to the Banh Cam. These decadent treats are wildly popular at Khmer festivals and gatherings. I made this recipe with a sweetened mung bean filling. This is the way I remember having it most as a kid. I recall thinking the inside was some type of sweet egg yolk, custard like situation… But it just recently clicked in my head that it was, in fact, mashed up mung beans. You can also try making the recipe with red bean filling and maybe a little coconut flake in either of them! You also don’t need to fill them at all, they’re heavenly without any extra pazazz.
Banh Cam (Vietnamese Sesame Ball with Mung Bean)
Serving: 16 balls
Time: 9 hours (about 1 hour active time)
113g dried, split mung beans
21g granulated sugar
Pinch of salt (about ¼ tsp)
Dash of vanilla (optional)
113g glutinous rice flour
21g rice flour
21g All purpose flour
24g Instant potato flake
45g Granulated sugar
5g Baking Powder
Salt to taste (½ tsp is safe)
118g (about ½ cup) warm water, plus a little extra for consistency (the amount needed will depend on humidity in room)
Wash and drain your mung beans similar to rice, then add water until it’s about ½ inch or more above the surface of the mung beans. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
While mung beans are soaking, you can make the outer shell dough.
Combine all ingredients for the shell in one bowl (except the water) and mix until the ingredients are evenly distributed.
Add the water and hand mix, add water a teaspoon at a time if necessary to make dough come together. The dough will feel kind of dry, but will hold together in one piece. (the texture reminds me of a dense moon sand)
Cover the dough, and let rest from 2-8 hours.
After the mung beans are done soaking, steam them for about 15-20 minutes until they are soft and mashable. Pour into a bowl and mash with sugar, salt, and the optional vanilla.
Form the mung bean paste into small balls, making 16 evenly sized spheres.
Get your dough, and cut into 16 evenly sized pieces (I used my scale.. I think it was around 100g per piece)
Flatten these pieces in your hand, placing the mung bean portions in the middle and wrapping the dough around it. Make sure there are no cracks and that the mung bean filling is completely covered with the rice dough.
Roll the balls in a bowl of white sesame seeds, lightly pressing the seeds into the dough.
Deep fry them, stirring occasionally at about 300 degrees Fahrenheit until golden brown and delicious.
The recipe seems more tedious than it really is. I really just felt like a child playing with Play-Doh forming shapes and spheres. Whether or not it ends up being tedious, it’s totally worth it. Trust me.