Fried bananas but with a French twist
Around the end of November, the tall silhouette of a Western man behind a cart selling fried bananas started intriguing residents on District 1’s Tran Dinh Xu and Nguyen Cu Trinh streets. His sign reads “fried bananas, fried pineapples”, all priced at VND10,000 ($0.43) a pop.
Fabrice, owner of this little fried goods stand, is a French tourist ‘trapped’ in Vietnam due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Every day from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m, he takes out his cart, heads to a convenience store and nearby local market to acquire ingredients. Around 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. he cleans up and heads home.
Fabrice only operates in the morning since he thinks his fried fare makes for a good student or working person breakfast. In the afternoon, more stalls open making business more competitive.
His workstation includes a small gas stove, a large bowl of batter, a rack with fried food, cutting boards, fresh bananas, pineapples, spatulas and forks.
Pineapples are cut into circles and marinated in a tub of sugar overnight. Unsalted butter is the secret weapon that distinguishes Fabrice’s fried produce from others fried in oil.
Anh Thu, a patron said: “This fried cake has a buttery smell and is less greasy in comparison to traditional Vietnamese fried bananas.”
Fabrice’s fried bananas in Saigon streets.
During his first few days of business, Fabrice only coated the fruit in batter and fried them fresh to order. A cake takes five minutes to cook. Sometimes, when the coating was too thick it would cost an additional five minutes to obtain the right texture.
Afraid of making customers wait too long, the chef would press his hands together to gesture in apology.
“I think having the frying process on display is important to show that the goods are always fresh,” he said.
Vietnamese patrons tend to prefer greater sweetness, which always makes Fabrice smile. He explained how his recipe would not change and that everyone has their own palate.
“If my cakes are good, customers will return. My stand has been quite busy lately,” he proudly stated.
Fabrice’s customers mainly comprise nearby locals, students from a neighborhood school, and occasional passersby.
A local shopkeeper said his only criticism is the French chef’s topless work breaks.
The idea for a fried cake stall came about during the pandemic. After the country’s three-week social distancing campaign in April, Fabrice wandered about to escape his stuffy hotel room.
“I want to be physically active, browse the market, cook, relish in traditional dishes, try out eateries while gaining an income,” he said.
He noticed that banana and pineapple are two fruits frequently used in both sweet and savory Vietnamese dishes. The experience of a traditional street food, fried banana, along with the nostalgia of Western banana pancakes led to his own rendition.
Fabrice’s fried cakes have a buttery smell as he uses unsalted butter for frying instead of oil.
Despite knowing neither English nor Vietnamese, Fabrice refuses to let language barriers become an obstacle and instead relies on body language and gestures to serve his customers.
In January, the French tourist entered Vietnam on a visa that expired in April. He belongs to the group of 3,000 foreigners stuck in Vietnam as of April due to the pandemic. Fabrice was also one of the many tourists who extended their visas and stayed back instead of returning home.
He said his family lived in Saigon in the 70s before coming to France, adding his biological mother is Vietnamese with Western features. “That’s why I always desired to return to Vietnam.”
Fabrice currently lives in a nearby hotel. He said if this stand is enough to make a living, he would maintain this job.
Photos by Tam Linh
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