Even if I might not have tasted them, I thought I knew of all Vietnamese foods when I moved to Saigon a decade or so ago.
One dish proved me wrong emphatically, and took my breath away.
Soon after I settled in, I took a walk to check out my new neighborhood, and made a startling discovery.
My first sighting was a large, thick, flat, round, black hotplate on which many white cubes sizzled. These were made of rice flour. Intrigued, I approached the cart standing on a street corner.
What happened next was another surprise, something I did not expect at all. The vendor cracked eggs over the cubes and proceeded to scatter chopped onion over them.
I had no idea what the dish was but its smell and the way people were eating it with obvious relish made my mouth water.
“Ah, that is bot chien, very popular here. I thought you already knew about it,” my sister, who had settled in Saigon five years earlier, told me.
She was a bit surprised, but she’d never told me, and as I reminded her: “No, there is no such dish back home.” (Home was a town in the Mekong Delta).
Suffice it to say that I am an addict now and am always on the lookout for my bot chien fix.
And as far as I know, to this day, bot chien is a dish that is mostly sold by street vendors or small street-side eateries.
The internet tells me that bot chien originated in the Chinese community domiciled here. There are versions of it in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, where it is called “chai tow kwai,” or “fried carrot cake.”
This is corraborated by my colleague’s Singaporean friend whose father is Chinese.
The friend said chai tow kway originated in China and wherever Chinese go, they take this dish with them. Which is why people can find chai tow kway (sometimes with a local twist) in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The Saigon version of bot chien is made with rice flour cakes chopped into chunky squares and fried on a large flat pan before being topped with whipped eggs and chopped spring onions.
The dish is served crisp with a sweet rice vinegar and soy sauce concoction and some shredded pickled young papaya and carrot.
This is a dish that will give “greasy” a good name, crispy on the outside but soft inside, with the fried green onion giving it an appetizing aroma.
Ngoc, a Vietnamese Chinese woman who has been selling bot chien in an alley of Saigon’s District 3 since 1974, said that the snack was a treat of the Tieu people, or Chinese people from Chaozhou.
She said it was hard to tell exactly when the dish arrived in Saigon but it was the Chinese who brought it here.
But the Saigonese version is quite different from the original, as the rice flour cakes are gripsy instead of soft and spongy, the sauce is sweeter instead of salty, and the original was not served with pickled papaya and carrot.
Bot chien is very popular and widely available on Saigonese streets. It is tasty at all times, but earns an “out of the world” status during the rainy season.
Try this dish for yourself at one of the eateries along Vo Van Tan Street in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 3.
In no time, it will grow on you.