At small neighborhood markets, point-of-purchase displays offer some of the most interesting, if perplexing, homemade foods.
Tan Tin Hung regularly features a rainbow-hued array of small-batch Vietnamese snacks not far from the front counter. These two pyramids came from an additional display, opposite the checkout; I imagined that they might be seasonal items, perhaps analogous to Chinese moon cakes prepared for the Mid-Autumn Festival. The labels — "nhưn dừa" and (hidden from view) "đậu xanh" — indicated the key fillings but told nothing more. If they were labeled "coconut" and "mung bean," you might well have wondered "coconut and mung bean what? I guessed that the full names included "bánh," but that umbrella term, loosely translated as "cake," is very broad.
After seeing photos, several Vietnamese-American friends narrowed down the IDs. These bánh belong to a sub-category of snacks called bánh ít ("little cake") that are encased in glutinous rice flour dough, sealed in a banana-leaf wrapper, and steamed. The texture of the dough often resembles that of mochi (these were firmer), while the fillings can be savory or sweet (in this instance, not overly). My friends maintain that bánh ít are enjoyed year-round, but you're unlikely to find them for sale in New York markets all that often.
It also turns out that the full name of the item shown in the final photo, filled with shredded coconut and the typical roasted peanut, is bánh ít nhân dừa, not nhưn dừa. That minor spelling error on the label was apparently no trouble for someone who knows the language, but it certainly puzzled me.
Tan Tin Hung Supermarket
121 Bowery (Grand-Hester Sts.), Manhattan