This Week: Banh Xeo
The Basics: Authentic Vietnamese restaurants tend to have menus that can best be described as intimidating. Pho Thanh definitely fits that description. Their menu sprawls over several pages (including a drink and desert insert) and features more than 130 items. If you are looking to mix up your usual pho and spring roll combo you might want to swap your spring rolls out for something a little different: Banh xeo.
According to Wikipedia, the name of this dish literally translates to "sizzling cake." Cake is not a very good description of this savory, eggless crepe but the sizzling part refers to the sound the batter makes when it hits a hot pan. Inside the crunchy quick-fried batter are tender bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp. It is served with an assortment of leafy green vegetables and fish sauce with pickled vegetables. This dish is generally offered as an appetizer but it is definitely large enough to satisfy on its own.
After the jump: How to eat it.
Pho Thanh's Banh Xeo:
According to manager Thu Nguyen, banh xeo is a dish native to southern Vietnam, Saigon in particular.
Banh xeo starts with rice flour mixed with coconut milk and flavored with turmeric. Thu said that Vietnamese, like many Asian cultures, consume turmeric because it is good for the stomach and aids digestion. It also gives the banh xeo a vibrant yellow color and hearty flavor. Rice flour is used because of its capacity to cook up puffy and crunchy without a taste altering leavening agent like baking soda.
Much like a crepe, banh xeo batter is poured into a hot pan and spread into a thin layer with a quick circular flick of the pan. Working quickly, the cook piles in the filling. Thin strips of pork and shrimp halves are sprinkled into the batter and then covered with bean sprouts. The banh xeo is then flipped closed, the sprouts allowed to steam for a moment, and then served immediately.
How do I eat this? Much like pho there is a bit of manual labor that goes into consuming banh xeo properly. If you order banh xeo you should have three things in front of you: The banh xeo, a small bowl fish sauce with pickled carrots and daikon, and a large plate piled high with lettuce and leafy herbs. Grab a piece of lettuce and break off a goodly size chunk of your banh xeo. Use the lettuce to pick up and cradle the piece of banh xeo. Layer the herbs, usually cilantro and mint, on top. How much you use it up to you but the cilantro and mint give the finished product a fresh flavor and wonderfully crunchy texture. You should be holding a banh xeo lettuce wrap at this point. Give that sucker a dip in the fish sauce, a squirt of sriracha for taste and go to town.
Fear factor? Low. What is more, if you cannot eat shrimp or pork, Thu assured us that a chicken only version is available and just as delicious.