My grandmother is a child raising machine. As if raising nine of her own kids wasn’t enough of a challenge, she had her hands in raising almost all of the grand-kids too. Between cleaning up our messes and playing referee to our disputes, it seemed like she never skipped a beat in the kitchen.
In the very rare cases something wasn’t bubbling on the stove, grandma sometimes fed us a pulverized mix of roasted sesame seeds and salt (muối mè) over rice. Sounds like peasant food, right? Tasty peasant food. This is when I probably had my first taste of sesame seeds. It’s kind of funny that to this day, I don’t really know where sesame seeds come from (Any Mitch Hedberg fans?). These crunchy little teardrop-shaped seeds cover the snack we’re going to be making today–bánh cam (sesame balls).
The name bánh cam literally means “orange cake” because these balls simply resemble oranges, not because there are any actual oranges in it.
There’s wonderful harmony in bánh cam. The outer shell is a warm golden brown color covered in white sesame seeds. The exterior has a satisfying crispiness to it from frying. On the other side of that surface is a lightly chewy or springy glutinous rice dough and a sweet ball of mung bean. Fans of bánh cam can get pretty picky about this balance between the crisp and chew.
Although they look very similar, there are differences between bánh cam from the South and bánh ran from the North. Both styles can be found throughout the country though. My parents recount the differences in these fried desserts back home:
Northerners call it bánh ran, or “fried cake”. These are made with a Jasmine flower essence for a nice aroma. A sugary drizzle on these fried goodies can be found on them depending on the vendor. Another difference in the north is that when they are covered in sugar, the dough is made only with sweet rice flour and no rice flour, sesame seeds, or potatoes.
In this post, I make it in the Southern style. There is no essence of flower added to this. The most popular flavor added to the mung bean filling is with drops of vanilla extract. Only in the South will you find freshly shredded coconut in the filling too, but that will vary by vendor. If you add coconut to your recipe, do yourself a favor and use only freshly grated coconut!
The Chinese version of this looks very similar. I see these most of the time on dim sum carts. The filling is usually a paste of black or red bean, taro, or lotus seed. Since there’s enough water to make the filling a paste, it’s found sticking to one section of the inside.
In many cases, money determines how things pan out. We add potatoes to prevent bánh cam from exploding in the fryer. Since potatoes were scarce (expensive) in Vietnam so sweet potatoes were used instead. This increased the sweetness allowing the cook to save money by cutting back on sugar too.
For the mung bean filling, my parents swear no cooks or snackers cared for some detail such as if the ball of mung bean shakes inside or not. There’s more air inside when you make the filling smaller and it’s highly likely cooks did that to stretch their daily supply.
These were usually sold by vendors as an afternoon snack. Locals rarely could afford more than one of these. They were maybe the size of a small orange–large enough to satisfy a dessert craving.
It’s fun to flatten bánh cam into a disk before taking a bite, but I also like making them into little bite-sized poppers too. These are excellent served with coffee or tea.
It took a lot of recipe tinkering with mom to get to this recipe. The adjustments were made to get a better crisp in the shell, and to develop a deeper brown color. The amounts of sugar are made so it’s not too sweet. Adjusting sugar for the filling is easy, but it may change the texture and color if you adjust too much for the outer dough. I tried the mung bean filling with vanilla too, but prefer it without.
Before rolling and frying, the dough keeps in the fridge for a few days just fine. If you don’t eat too many of these at a time, it’s better to fry up fresh batches. After you fry these sesame balls, they do keep okay for a day or two. To reheat them, pop ‘em in a toaster oven, or re-fry them in oil.
I have also tried using boiled potato instead of flakes, and it didn’t turn out as well. It probably has to do with getting the water levels right, but there was much better success for me with potato flakes for some reason. There are some legit local vendors who make it with boiled potatoes and their bánh cam is excellent.