There are few Vietnamese dishes that can evoke as many of our senses as bánh xèo (sizzling cake or sizzling crepe), a bright yellow crepe stuffed with an explosion of protein goodness, served alongside a platter of multi-colored herbs and vegetables. Our ears tingle when the batter hits the hot pan to make a sizzling sound (hence the name “xèo”); our hands feel the contrasting temperatures and textures when tearing a piece of the hot cake and rolling it into the cool crisp lettuce leaves. Dipping the roll into the accompanying fish sauce and everything comes together nicely. Whether eating bánh xèo in a busy restaurant or in the comfort of our own home, we love it all the same.
Bánh xèo varies in terms of size and filling across Vietnam, reflecting each region’s differences in flavour profile and available ingredients. Nevertheless, the structure of a bánh xèo plate is consistent, no matter where you are.
The basic ingredients for a bánh xèo batter are rice flour, water and turmeric powder. Some cooks even add in beer or eggs to achieve a crispy edge and spongy soft centre. In Southern provinces, coconut milk is preferred for a richer and nuttier flavour.
Various theories have arisen to explain where bánh xèo first came about, but most sources pointed to Central Vietnam as its birthplace, where bánh xèo is made in a small round mould with a circumference of about 15 centimetres. Elsewhere in the North and the South, people use a large deep pan and swirl around to distribute the batter evenly before it sets. Either way, the best bánh xèo is made on a charcoal stove, testing the cook’s agility and multi-tasking ability as he or she assembles the fillings and adjusts the heat when needed.
Here is where a lot of improvisation takes place, as cooks often use what is seasonal and available on hand. In the North, you’ll come across pork belly slices, prawns, bean sprouts, yam and jicama. Similar elements are in Southern bánh xèo, but occasionally, you’ll also see snails, termite mushrooms (nấm mối) and Egyptian riverhemp flowers (bông điên điển), which are only found during certain months of the year.
On the other hand, cooks in Central Vietnam take advantage of the region’s bounty to include many types of seafood in the filling, including prawns and squids. Another ingredient that sets bánh xèo here apart is the use of peanut oil (as opposed to pork lard anywhere else), which imparts its distinct aroma and mildly sweet flavour into the finished dish.
The herbs & vegetables
There is no fixed formula for a herb and vegetable platter. At the most basic, you’ll have mustard greens, lettuce, basil, fish mint, perilla and a bunch of other regional herbs that cannot be found anywhere else. In Huế, there are green starfruits and bananas, which add some crunch and sourness to the overall bánh xèo roll.
The dipping sauce
As the filling for bánh xèo is seasoned very lightly, the dipping sauce has an important role to bring everything together. Many people say this could make or break the whole dining experience.
The common dipping sauce is sweet and tangy fish sauce, topped with chili, minced garlic, as well as pickled daikon and carrot. Cooks in the central region also use fermented fish paste and crushed peanuts for a sweeter and more pungent condiment.
Now that you know the components of a typical bánh xèo plate, the “what”, let’s learn how to eat bánh xèo the right way, the “how”.
- Cutting bánh xèo: Depending on how big your bánh xèo is, you might want to cut it into four to six pieces before assembling. When cutting, make sure that each piece includes a little bit of all the filling. If you’re eating casually with friends or family, you can also use your chopsticks and spoon to divide the crepe, instead of scissors.
- Wrapping bánh xèo: Once bánh xèo is cut into bite-size pieces, it’s time to assemble the roll. There are two routes you can take here. Central bánh xèo is rolled into a moistened sheet of rice paper, followed by the vegetables and herbs of your choice. Elsewhere, eaters use lettuce or mustard green leaves as the wrappers for their bánh xèo and build up the roll from there.
- Enjoy! Dip your roll into the fish sauce and enjoy!
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt