It’s more like a crepe than a pancake, or some would say more like a dosa than either a crepe or a pancake. The origins of the dish are like the origins of most, complex. Exactly where it came from and how it reached the current manifestation of delicacy that it is today is obscure to say the least. However, certain influences, be they through Central Asian trade or French Imperialism, seem to pop up as soon as the dish sits in front of you.
There’s a quality to Southeast Asian food that is missing in most of its’ mainland Northern counterparts. It’s simple and fresh further south. The enormous gray cold doesn’t quite have the reach it does on the tributaries of the southern tips. Therefore the food is less based in heavy sauces, not swimming in oil, not thickened with corn starch or msg, and rarely, if ever, contains duck necks. It’s based on barbecue and DIY freshness.
There is that long standing comparison between a silver dome and a bento box. First arrives a silver domed dish covering a perfectly prepared meal that says to the diner, “What you are about to eat has been so utterly and completely perfected for you.” Then comes an open bento box where all the pieces of your meal have been arranged but not yet combined and it says to the diner, “Here is all you need, we know you have the expertise to create culinary perfection.” This is a long explanation to say that Banh Xeo is more like that latter.
It could all be chocked up to preferences but that would make for a short article. People come to Vietnam from China and say, “Vietnamese food is so much more fresh than Chinese food.” Then people come to Vietnam from Thailand and say, “Thai food just sh**s all over this.” But if you eat it all, the pieces of different Asian cuisine start to take on their own lives without necessarily being compared to one another.
Vietnam does have two things that separate it from the rest. First off, they combined tasty influences from other cultures while not losing the inherent flavors that make Vietnamese exactly what it is. Second, they took a good cue from someone, be it India, the French or someone else, and kept the dosa/crepe before rudimentary trade with India waned and before they removed the French and their colonial intentions.
(Some would say that Banh Xeo is primarily Indian in descent due to the addition of turmeric, but occasionally eggs pop up in the mixture which may point to a French influence. However, at no point is Maple Syrup poured all over it so we can be fairly sure that there is little American influence.)
Finally, and on a sidenote, they didn’t read Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution and they took a page from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, or more accurately, Pollan took a page from them, and they absolutely kept bread on the table.
They have so much bread. Bread can be so ubiquitous when it’s a staple of a persons home cuisine. Remove it and it becomes like losing a limb. Vietnam kept that stubby third nipple of the Asian diet and said, “You know, bread is good. It’s even good when I don’t add sugar.”
And with that, the focus of the dish is now completely lost. For whatever reason and from whatever place, the Vietnamese have their own pancake/crepe/dosa and it’s called Banh Xeo. The layers of flavors are intricate, the textures are crunchy and satisfying, all around this could be one of the best snacks on the planet.
Forget your cutlery and your chopsticks as this is entirely done by hand. If possible, build a small kitchen outside and low to the ground. It will feel incredibly authentic.
Here is the recipe as I saw it on the street:
Crepe – the ratio should be about 1 to 1.5 of dry to wet with more coconut milk than water
- Rice Flour
- Turmeric, or Curry Powder
- Coconut Milk, see tips below
Filling – this varies from place to place but the following is like a Banh Xeo Big Mac. It is normally made without egg or corn.
- Pork – cubed and cooked
- Green Onions
- Fish Sauce
- Bean Sprouts
Fixin’s – this part is incredibly important to the Vietnamese
- An entire head of fresh crispy lettuce (not iceberg but really, is there ever any reason to use iceberg)
- A bitter green that can be eaten raw, something like Shou Cai in China or Phak Lin May in Lao, but mostly, if you can’t find those, you can use arugula or omit it all together
- Nuoc Cham – basically take fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, shredded carrot, and chili and keep adding salt and sugar until it has really good bite.
Method – for cooking
- Make a thin crepe batter adding all ingredients except water and combine well. Then thin with water.
- Cook your shrimp.
- Begin your crepe and when it starts to set, add shrimp, bean sprouts, and pour over beaten egg.
- Fold it over once set.
- Remove from heat.
Method – for eating
- Tear off a piece of lettuce.
- Break off a piece of crepe.
- Put crepe and other herbs into the piece of lettuce and wrap.
- Dip into sauce.
- Put in mouth.
- the traditional way of “making” coconut milk is to steep grated coconut in boiling water
- use pork fat and vegetable oil to cook the crepe (in fact, pork fat makes most things better)
This dish is incredibly satisfying, to eat the one I ate head to the most famous in Vietnam –
Banh Xeo 46A
46A Ð Dinh Cong Trang, District 3
Ho Chi Minh City
+84 8 3824 1110