from one generation to the next
I love Vietnamese food. The fresh herbs, the hot sweet and salty sauces, the intense kick of lime and the crunch of raw vegetables are a delicious counterpoint to rich and sticky pork and chicken. Recently, eating out in a Vietnamese cafe with friends, we ordered from the street food menu. The crepes, bánh xèo, were truly memorable for all the reasons I just mentioned so I vowed to myself then and there to attempt to make them at home.
My Vietnamese cookbooks gave me permission to freewheel with the fresh herbs and leafy fillings, but the recent pancake had morsels of sticky braised pork belly inside and that was too tempting to ignore. Slow cooking a piece of pork belly in master stock was the easy part.
The crepes on the other hand were a major challenge. What can go wrong making pancakes?
Firstly I learned the value of explicit recipe instructions. My first pancakes were impossible to turn or lift out of the pan and tasted terrible. I realised at this point that rice flour in the recipe meant glutinous rice flour. I had chosen coarse brown rice flour. I was so annoyed I abandoned that recipe altogether and chose an alternative.
Again I had problems. I was about to give up then I realised all the corn starch has dropped out of the batter and was sitting in the bottom of the bowl. The second thing I learned was to read the method carefully. I had made the assumption that I was cooking pancakes like those I cook for breakfast. More fool me. When using cornstarch in pancakes, the batter needs to be whisked just before pouring to make it homogenous.
This was NOT like cooking regular breakfast pancake or crepes.
While the recipe stated the pan size and recommended a non stick surface, neither worked for me. I had much more control by using a small, well seasoned cast iron pan, my regular pancake pan. Quite by accident or perhaps carelessness I then found the pan needed to be very hot and the amount of oil in the pan was critical. An oiled pan wasn’t enough. It needed a little puddle so that the batter bubbled immediately it hit the pan and fried to crispness.
It was a steep learning curve but I’m so glad I persisted because our bánh xèo were delicious.
The vegetables: I used, mung bean shoots, snow pea shoots, finely julienned carrot, fresh coriander leaves, fresh mint leaves, finely shredded iceberg lettuce.
The pork: Braise a piece of rindless belly pork, about 500g for 1 1/2 hours in master stock. Remove the pork from the stock then use 2 forks to shred the meat. Pour 1/2 cup of stock over the meat, then chill overnight. When ready to serve, reheat the pork in a hot pan, cooking until the stock has totally reduced and the meat is glazed
Crepe recipe for bánh xèo ( V slightly modified Charles Phan “Vietnamese Home Cooking”)
1 cup glutinous rice flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 cups water
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
2 tablespoons snipped garlic chives
peanut oil for cooking
To make the batter put all the dry ingredients, except the chives into a bowl.
Whisk to combine.
Add the water and coconut milk and whisk until smooth.
Set aside to rest for 10 minutes then stir in the chives.
Choose your favourite pancake pan and preheat until it’s very hot.
Add 2 teaspoons of peanut oil, stir the batter*, then pour a small amount into the pan, immediately swirling the batter to lightly coat the pan. It should splutter and bubble.
When the top surface is almost cooked scatter over a few pieces of pork.
When the crepe is well browned and crisp around the edges, loosen it from the pan with a palette knife the slide it onto a plate
Add some vegetables, drizzle with sauce, fold and eat immediately
*It’s important to stir the batter before you cook each crepe as the cornstarch will drop