The Bánh Xèo
While phở, bánh mì and, bún chả take center stage in Vietnamese cuisine, bánh xèo is recognisable to almost everyone in Việt Nam. The thin, delicious rice flour pancake has earned its place among the pantheon of roadside Vietnamese fare on street corners and in tiny, modest quán. However, as any reputable street food eater will tell you, the bánh xèo’s hundreds of varieties ensure that true appreciation of the dish extends beyond consuming a particular regional variety.
It’s also known as banh chao in Cambodian cuisine. Cambodian banh chao is more akin to the southern Vietnamese style of bánh xèo than to the central Vietnamese version. Khanom bueang yuan is a Thai form of bánh xèo.
The round, savory crepes acquire their name from the sound of rice flour sizzling on a hot pan – bánh xèo translates to “sizzling cake” – and feature a variety of local ingredients depending on the region they’re served in.
Though it’s unclear when these tasty pancakes first came into existence, most agree that the original bánh xèo hailed from central Việt Nam. During the Tây Sơn dynasty, the crepes were so popular that locals would switch up their usual rice diet on the second and 16th day of the lunar month, opting for bánh xèo in place of their typical meal.
Today’s savory pancakes are thought to be a direct descendant of Hue’s bánh khoái, a crispier pancake still consumed in the ancient imperial city or that the recipe was perhaps borrowed centuries ago from Cham culture, while some have even speculated that the dish is inspired by South Indian cuisine dates back to the first millennium when Indian merchandisers and traders arrived at the bustling seaport of Đà Nẵng.
The original pancake from central Việt Nam has generated a host of variations, regardless of where it came from. In Bình Định, Quảng Ngãi, and Quảng Nam provinces, locals wrap their medium-sized bánh xèo in rice paper, while further south in Khánh Hòa, Ninh Thuận, and Bình Thuận, often pork is replaced for seafood by the local cooks. Most of the time, fresh herbs and lettuce/mustard greens are wrapped around these smaller crepes.
Because of the reduced pan size, the shrimp used in these central locations are small “live” shrimp. The name tôm nhảy literally translates to “jumping shrimp”, so the freshness of the seafood is paramount. Most cooks insist on milling rice flour by hand because freshly ground rice powder is said to have a crunchiness that lasts even after cooling. In terms of texture, the contrast between the crispy crust and the soft, congee-like inside makes this crepe a hit.
Chefs in central Việt Nam use thinly sliced star fruit and young green banana, as well as fish-mint and young coriander, as toppings for their pancakes, whilst chefs in the south may use mushrooms or even lotus stem.
The bánh xèo becomes larger as you travel further south. Giant crepes filled with mung bean and pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts are served with an accompanying plate of herbs, shredded banana blossom, and fresh greens in Cần Thơ, Biên Hòa, and Sài Gòn.
Its popularity in the southern hub is a more recent development. During the 1960s and 1970s, the bánh xèo was not very popular in Sài Gòn, but as more workers relocated to the city, some from central Việt Nam, the bánh xèo began to gain appeal due to its portability in the 1980s. Food carts popped up on street corners as more central Vietnamese arrived in Sài Gòn, serving the savory pancakes, which were a bình dân meal (staple food), reserved mainly for the working-class. Bánh xèo eventually made its way into restaurant menus as more affluent Saigonese learned about the dish.
Rice flour, turmeric powder, water, salt, chopped green scallions, and coconut milk are used to make the traditional bánh xèo batter. Many cooks nowadays, however, insist on using wheat flour, maize flour, or tapioca flour in the recipe to make it crispier.
Perhaps to keep up with demand, modern eateries prepare bánh xèo Banh in gas ovens. Traditional street food vendors, on the other hand, prioritize quality above quantity and continue to cook with firewood since the scent and flavor that arises from slow cooking are superior to modern alternatives.
How to Eat Bánh Xèo
- Bánh xèo is a traditional Vietnamese dish best eaten with your hands. On the table is always a large portion of greens with a variety of herbs and sliced cucumber, starfruit, and green banana.
- Using chopsticks and your hand, tear off a little bite-size piece of bánh xèo.
- Wrap it in a piece of lettuce or softened rice paper of the same size, or both.
- Mint, young coriander, fish mint, and Vietnamese perilla are some of the herbs that can be added to the roll. Roll it tightly in both hands into a fat log and dip it in a tasty and well-balanced nước chấm with chopped peanuts.