A Taste of Cooking in the Mekong Delta

by Eliot Martin

I’ve found that really good Vietnamese food is unfortunately difficult to find in the U.S. For that matter, Vietnam as a whole seems to be misunderstood by many. While the best solution would be to spend some quality time in Vietnam—something I would recommend to anyone—you can whet your appetite without going halfway around the world. Get a taste of Vietnam through my experience with bánh xèo.

When someone says “Vietnamese Food,” what comes to mind?

For most people, I would guess their answer is phở, maybe fresh spring rolls or bánh mì.

This was my impression before I stumbled across an incredible hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant while driving through Louisville, KY, several years ago. It was only then that my eyes were opened to another iconic Vietnamese dish—bánh xèo (pronounced: BÁNH-say-òh. Roughly translated as fried cake). I was taken aback by the complex flavors and textures in the dish. It was a crispy, yet chewy, vibrantly yellow crepe; rich with pork fat, but tempered with light and pungent herbs and lettuce; served with sweet, sour, and spicy nước chấm (a lime juice and fish sauce blend that goes with many dishes in Vietnam).

Fast forward a few years and I found myself living in Vietnam as a student. One of the first meals I had in country was a bánh xèo that well exceeded my recollection.

If you’re like me, a large swath of the pleasure of travel is experiencing culture through cuisine. I made it my mission to try every new food I could get my hands on during my nearly four months in Vietnam. I made a special point to not only experience the food I could find on the streets of Saigon and restaurants around the country, but through learning what people eat inside their homes first hand with my homestay mom—by my reckoning, one of the finest chefs in the world.

My learning from her was done mostly through gesturing and the communication of individual food words using translation apps, notes, or my homestay brother’s translations—my homestay mom hardly spoke a word of English and my Vietnamese is atrocious. I couldn’t hope to achieve many of her sophisticated dishes and I wasn’t sure what ingredients I’d even be able to replicate.

If little else could be imparted, she wanted to at least teach me my favorite Vietnamese food, so I asked her to show me how to make bánh xèo.

On a trip to the Mekong Delta with my homestay mom and friends, the time had come for one of my most memorable food experiences. In the early evening, I joined my homestay mom and a close friend of hers under a dining gazebo situated in a picturesque field of palm and banana trees along the river to learn how to make bánh xèo.

Ingredient-by-ingredient, step-by-step, she instructed me without words. My culinary background enabled me to fill in the blanks in many instances, and acquire the necessary skills quickly—though with nowhere near the acuity of my mentor.

Google translate assisted in confirming my hunch that the crystalline salt added was MSG, but I was dumbfounded by what turned out to be the quintessential ingredient in this iteration of the dish—some damp, fibrous strips of white vegetal matter. After fruitless engagement with Google Translate, she eventually pointed at the top of a palm tree—it was fresh heart of palm, an ingredient I had never seen before and to this day have never seen since.

After several attempts of trial and error, we put together an array of bánh xèo in varying degrees of presentability.

As I sat down at the outdoor table in good company and the moist, cool air of the Delta in evening, I knew I had been granted a truly extraordinary opportunity. The bánh xèo came out exceptionally crispy on the clay burners we had used to cook outside. The fresh ingredients left us with unique flavor impressions—the density and light, sweet coconut flavor the heart of palm imparted to the crepes was exquisite. The exotic atmosphere and new family the meal was shared with made the experience truly memorable.

While I can’t share every detail of that night or adequately describe the finesse of my homestay mom in the kitchen, the recipe I have included is an adaptation of my notes from that very meal. The only alteration I have made is the recommendation of bean sprouts as an alternative to the fresh heart of palm—true to the way the dish is prepared just about everywhere else in Vietnam.

It may take some experimentation to get right, but skip ordering bánh xèo in a restaurant, make it right and write your own story in the company of friends and family with this recipe. And next time you order Vietnamese food, remember to look beyond the famous Hanoian street food, phở, and delve deeper into an incredible and under-explored cuisine.

 

Bánh Xèo Recipe

Servings—Makes enough for several people as an appetizer or a few as a meal

Cooking time—Allow up to a couple hours for prep time. Making multiple crepes on one burner can be time consuming.

 

Batter ingredients:

Approx. One cup rice flour

One can coconut milk

Approx. ½ cup chives (finely chopped)

Water

Approx. one tbsp. turmeric powder

Salt to taste (the original recipe calls for 50% table salt and 50% msg)

 

Filling ingredients:

A strip of pork belly, diced (Typically available at Asian grocery stores. Sometimes you can even get it at Whole Foods. Though not ideal, it could be substituted with a mild bacon.)

One large onion sliced

One package sliced mushrooms

A couple handfuls small shell-on shrimp (These can typically be found in the frozen section at an Asian grocery store. Substitution with other shrimp is possible, but not recommended.)

A couple handfuls of bean sprouts

*I wouldn’t recommend substituting canned heart of palm for the fresh heart of palm my homestay mom used because it neither contributes the texture nor light coconut flavor that were so nice with the fresh heart of palm. You could try experimenting with mature coconut flesh for a similar effect—but that’s probably more work than it’s worth.

**When available, sliced squash blossoms are a delicious addition as well

 

For frying:

Traditionally lard is used, though it works nearly as well with vegetable oil

A traditional wok is ideal for this recipe for the edges of the crepe to properly crisp. If you don’t have one, a large sautéing/stir fry pan will work fine—it is important to have a large cooking surface though.

 

For serving:

Mint

Vietnamese/Thai basil

Cilantro

Purple perilla/sesame leaves (Available at Asian grocery stores. Can substitute with mustard greens)

Lettuce (I’d recommend a head of red oak lettuce)

A rice bowl of nước chấm

 

Instructions:

Mix coconut water and chives. Refill empty coconut milk can with water and add to mixture. Add rice flour, mixing evenly, keeping the batter very runny (About the consistency of coconut milk. If it is too thick, the crepes will not crisp properly). Add enough turmeric to turn the light batter yellow. Salt to taste.

Stir fry briefly, in small batches, the onion, shrimp, pork, mushroom, bean sprouts, and squash blossom in frying oil in a very hot wok (it should be hot enough to vaporize any moisture that is released from ingredients).

Transfer mixture out of wok. Heat wok up again until very hot (retain the oil, adding more if needed).

Quickly pour a ladle of batter in a circular motion around the wok, tilting the wok as needed to fully cover the hottest portion with a thin layer of batter.

Carefully add a few large pinches of the filling mixture onto the middle of the crêpe (I know the mixture looks tasty, but resist the temptation to add more than a sprinkling of the ingredients in order for it to cook properly!) and cover for a couple minutes until the crêpe is bubbly.

Uncover and add lard or oil on edges to avoid sticking. Turn the wok over the flame on its sides to use the boiling oil to get the edges crispy.

When the edges are very crispy and it appears fully cooked, fold the crêpe in half.

Serve with nước chấm, herbs (typically mint and Vietnamese/Thai basil, and a little cilantro), purple perilla, and a variety of lettuces. Wrap the crepe in the herbs and lettuces and dip in the sauce (be prepared to get a little messy!).

 

Nước Chấm Recipe

Literally “lime water”—this sauce pretty much goes with an astonishing array of dishes in in Vietnam. You may also here it simply referred to as nước mắm  (fish sauce) as this is the typical way the traditional Vietnamese sauce of fermented fish is used.

 

Combine ingredients to taste (listed in order of quantity used):

Fresh lime juice

Fish sauce (nước mắm)

Palm sugar (cane sugar works almost as well)

Crushed fresh Vietnamese/Thai chilis

Crushed fresh garlic

(many places include grated carrot and shredded green mango too—though this are a good thing to skip when making it at home)

Eliot Martin is a first-year student in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program who, like many Friedman students, finds that much of his life revolves around food and travel. While the food-systems research he is most interested in pertains to behavioral decision making and its policy implications, he’s excited to share his personal experiences as well. He looks forward to contributing regularly to the sprout. Eliot can be contacted at eliot.martin@tufts.edu or on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/eliot-martin-52406289.

 

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