The chef drops a lump of sticky rice into hot oil and continuously shapes it as it expands.
And then, like a wizard with his wand, he turns it into a big plump ball.
But there is no magic or secret here, it is all about skills that have been developed from what started as a mistake.
You might have heard somewhere that life-changing inventions usually come from mistakes. In one way or another, that principle seems true for the story of how the sticky rice ball was born, even though it is clearly not a life changer for anyone.
Locals in Dong Nai Province neighboring Saigon still tell their visitors a story from back in the 1950s when a chef accidentally dropped a small piece of sticky rice into boiling oil.
The next thing the man knew, the rice had ballooned and formed a delicious ball, and he knew he was on to something.
He took some more steamed sticky rice, kneaded into a smoother ball, added sugar and dropped into the boiling oil, creating the very first sticky rice ball cake in the south.
Since then chefs have been adopting and adapting the recipe to make their own sticky rice balls that are even bigger and better than the originals, which were only the size of an adult’s fist.
The golden sticky rice balls. Photo by Mr.True
If you have any intention of trying to make this cake at home, Chef Huynh Thanh Phong from Ho Chi Minh City has something to say.
“It looks easy but it’s not,” he said. “To make a tasty rice ball, choosing the fine sticky rice is the first crucial step. Then the hardest and most important step is frying the cake.”
“You have to choose the right pan and adjust the fire with skill [which you learn through a lot of practice] to fry the perfect cake. If you make just one wrong move, the cake will fall flat,” he said.
So for now, sit back and watch the artists amaze you while waiting for the final product: a golden ball that is flattened and cut into small pieces, crunchy outside but chewy inside.
There are many restaurants in the southern provinces of Dong Nai, Can Tho and Ben Tre that serve these tasty treats, and some chefs have already brought them to the north.
In Saigon, check out Binh Quoi 1 Tourist Area in Binh Thanh District.