One of my favorite discoveries during my trip to Vietnam were Bánh xèo, Vietnamese savoury fried pancakes or crepes made of rice flour, water, and turmeric powder, and if you’ve ever seen them made, it will come as no surprise that the name literally translates as “sizzling cake”.
Individually sized Bánh xèo is one of the signature dishes of Central Vietnam, and I had them for the first time in the Vietnamese coastal town of Nha Trang.
I was on my way to the market one evening when I rounded a corner and stumbled upon the creatively named Bánh Xèo restaurant, located at 85 Tô Hiến Thành. The restaurant, which was little more than a hole in the wall, was packed.
In front of the restaurant a young woman stood behind an outdoor kitchen that consisted of two specially made charcoal stoves sitting on a portable counter/work station. The stoves each had 6 holes cut out of the top, into which shallow cast iron dishes about 6” in diameter were placed, exposing them directly to the heat of the charcoal fires beneath. The young woman kept the fires burning red hot with the aid of a standing electric fan that ensured a constant breeze.
As I stood and watched her, the young woman ladled a little oil onto each dish. Then, into each one she dropped a piece or two of squid, quickly ladled pancake batter onto the sizzling squid and followed that with a sprinkling of chopped green onions and bean sprouts. Finally, to make sure that the top cooked as the bottom got crispy, she covered each dish with a little cone shaped lid that reflected the heat back down. Then, a minute or so later, they were done.
After watching the process for about 15 minutes, and seeing plate after plate of the crispy pancakes pass me by, I decided I had to try them for myself. I walked inside and took a seat at one of the little metal tables. Using the time honored combination of smiles and sign language I placed my order.
As I waited for my Bánh xèo to be ready, the waitress brought me a huge metal bowl of mixed greens: Mustard leaf, mint, cilantro, Thai basil, Vietnamese perilla (a strongly flavored green similar to sesame leaf), and a variety of baby lettuces, as well as a little dish of Nuoc Cham (a slightly sweet tart dipping sauce made with the fish sauce for which Nha Trang is famous). Moments later she returned with a plate containing three crispy Bánh xèo. Then, to my surprise, she kindly proceeded to show me the proper way to prepare them.
The large bowl of greens, it turned out, wasn’t a salad. It was an integral part of the Bánh xèo experience.
So, following her direction, I took one of the large mustard leaves, held it in my hand and placed half a Bánh xèo into it. Onto that I piled greens from the metal bowl, taking care to put in a little of each one for the maximum flavor experience. Then, I rolled the whole thing up like a burrito, dipped one end into the Nuoc Cham and took a bite.
It was a flavor explosion!
The greens were flavorful and fresh and balanced the oily crispiness of the Bánh xèo, the squid was delicate and tender, and the lime and fish sauce-based Nuoc Cham added sweetness, piquancy and depth. (Don’t let the fish sauce scare you. While it has a very distinctive and pungent flavor, and should be used with a light hand, it doesn’t taste “fishy.”)
The experience was so satisfying that I immediately began contemplating ordering another round. They were, after all, very small pancakes… So, the little glutton in me ate and ate and ate… (My stomach would have been happier if I had stopped eating at 5 bánh xèo, but they were too good to just leave languishing on the plate, so I ate them all.) Finally, however, I was done, and I indicated to my waitress that I was ready for the check. At which point she presented me with the total for my meal: 30,000 VND – $1.50.
This was another example of something that I found to be universally true during my time in Vietnam. There was an inverse relationship to how much a meal cost and the quality of the meal. Happily, I paid my waitress, said good bye to the young woman cooking out front, and made my way home, thoughts the visiting the next evening already forming in my head.
The distance from the northernmost point in Vietnam to the southernmost point in Vietnam is approximately 950 miles as the crow flies. If it were a straight shot, that is about the same distance as New York City to Jacksonville, Florida, but in Vietnam there are a lot of mountains, and not a lot of interstate highways. So it stands to reason that over time regional variations in Vietnamese food have developed.
Southern style bánh xèo are larger and thinner than the small pan-fried versions in the central and northern regions and often contain coconut milk and turmeric. Also, unlike the smaller versions which are served individually,
the larger southern style bánh xèo are typically served family style with each person breaking off pieces of the Vietnamese pancake to wrap in their mustard leaves.
While Bánh xèo was one of my favorite discoveries in Vietnam, I have not found it on the menus of many Vietnamese restaurants here in the states. If you happen to be in New York City, however, you are in luck!
Nha Trang Centre Restaurant, located at 148 Centre Street, just off Canal Street on the border of Chinatown and Tribeca, offers the southern style version of this crispy delight. So the next time you and a friend are in Chinatown, stop by and give it a try! It is perfect for sharing with a friend.
For those of you not in the NYC area, here is a Bánh xèo recipe. You can make bánh xèo at home and impress your friends with your culinary adventurism. It takes just a little prep work and is simple enough for even the novice chef.
Bánh Xèo Recipe Vietnamese Crêpes
makes 4 crêpes (serves 4 as an appetizer or two as an entrée)
1 cup rice flour (you can not substitute regular flour or corn starch)
1 cup water
1 half teaspoon turmeric
pinch of salt
vegetable oil for frying
4 ounces raw peeled shrimp cut into half inch pieces
4 ounces raw sliced squid (or any other protein of your choice)
4 scallions, sliced
2 cups mung bean sprouts
leafy lettuce leaves for wrapping: green leaf lettuce, butter lettuce, mustard greens
fresh herbs: mint, Thai basil, cilantro, spring mix, baby lettuce
Nuoc Cham dipping sauce (see below)
*** Preheat your oven to 200 degrees ***
In a bowl mix the rice flour, water, turmeric and salt and let stand.
Heat a little oil in a 10 inch non-stick pan and cook the shrimp and squid until they are opaque
Remove the cooked seafood and divide into 4 equal parts. Add a tablespoon or two of oil to the pan (this is important to make your crêpe very crisp and chewy) and sprinkle in one quarter of the sliced green onions and one quarter of your cooked seafood. Pour one half cup of batter on top of the fillings and tilt the pan to spread the batter evenly. Top with one quarter of the bean sprouts and cook lightly-covered for several minutes until the bottom of the crêpe begins to turn brown and very crunchy. Fold the crêpe in half and drain on paper towels. Place in the preheated oven to stay warm while you cook the other crêpes. Repeat the process, using one quarter of each of the ingredients for each Vietnamese pancake.
When serving, eat the most recently cooked crêpe first, as it has that just out of the pan crispiness. If you have more than one appropriate pan, you can cook multiple crêpes simultaneously.
Serve with lettuce and herbs and Nuoc cham dipping sauce.
Nuoc Cham Recipe (from vietworldkitchen.com)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon chili paste or a chopped red chili
2 – 3 Tablespoons fish sauce (available at any Asian market and most grocery stores)
1 – 2 Tablespoons lime juice
1 quarter cup water
1 clove garlic, minced
Mix all the ingredients, and adjust to taste. (No, you can’t skip the fish sauce ; )