The Banh Xeo: The tantalizing Chameleon of classic Vietnamese Cuisine
Beyond pho, goi cuon & banh mi, banh xeo is often named as a must-try dish for visitors to Vietnam.
Banh xeo translates literally as “Sizzling Cake”. When reduplicated, xeo xeo (pronounced like “sell-sell”) is an effective Vietnamese onomatopoeia describing the tantalising sizzles or assortment of cracking sounds one might encounter when sauteing or frying food.
Frequently compared to crepes, pancakes and more than often agreed to be a close relative of the Japanese Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き)and Korean Jeon (전), these Vietnamese pancakes are commonly filled with a generous amount of bean sprouts, shrimp and slices of pork in Ho Chi Minh City. The most ubiquitous way to eat banh xeo in Saigon is by wrapping them in softened banh trang (Vietnamese rice paper) together with seasonal raw vegetables and dipping the resultant masterpiece in a wide range of sauces that vary depending on stalls, homes and regions. Depending on the region, these sauces vary from fish sauce-based to peanut-based and at times are even made from finely blended liver.
Cô Chi from Quang Ngai demonstrates how Banh Xeo is made in her hometown.
The key to banh xeo’s sizzle-magic lies in the batter where the identity and ratios of grain powders are kept as family and vendor secrets. Depending on the desired consistency, flavour, crispiness, sponginess and texture upon cooling, banh xeo batter may be made purely from rice flour or even complicated concoctions of rice powder, wheat flour, corn starch and perhaps even tapioca powder.
In most of southern Vietnam and Saigon, banh xeo mien tay (South-western) is a crowd-pleaser with its rich taste due to the liberal use of coconut milk. This style is also universally accepted abroad as the flamboyant mascot of banh xeo.
Bánh Xèo 46A on Dinh Cong Trang Street, made famous by late Anthony Bourdain.
Depending on the skill of the maker, the edges of Bánh Xèo Miền Tây are often deliberately thinner and crispier than its centre, with every bite exuding a nice burst of coconut fragrance. A yellow hue is achieved by the addition of turmeric powder, and the use of mung beans as a filling serves as a slightly sweet and umami complement. The overwhelming richness of Bánh Xèo Miền Tây coaxes its audiences to consume it with large servings of raw vegetables. This is likely the reason why it happens to be served predominantly with a savoury, fish sauce-based dipping sauce that is often mixed with sour pickles and sometimes a dash of vinegar.
Bánh Xèo Dư, a trending Bánh Xèo establishment in Bình Thạnh district specialising in open-faced Bánh Xèo Quy Nhơn.
Unlike its southern Vietnamese counterpart, this central Vietnamese rendition of the popular snack replaces pork with thin slices of seasoned lean beef and replaces mung beans with onions and scallions. Medium-small shrimp are preferred because of the smaller pan size. The name tôm nhảy literally translates to “jumping shrimp”, so freshness of seafood is paramount. Most makers in Quy Nhon insist on milling rice flour by hand since freshly-ground rice powder purportedly results in a crunchiness that persists for a long time even after cooling. The contrast between its crunchy crust and soft, congee-like interior makes this rendition a winner in terms of texture.
Bánh Xèo Cầu Ván, a long time establishment & local favourite in Tân Phú district.
Another style from Quang Ngai province changes the textural experience with its inclusion of eggs.Best described as crepe-like or perhaps an omelette, the banh xeo of Quang Ngai is the antithesis of other more common styles. Slightly fluffy, these are a serious treat if you are an egg-lover. One notable peculiarity is how finely chopped scallions are added to the batter before the cooking process, elevating the fragrance of the piping fresh banh xeo.
Cô Chi’s Banh Xeo Quang Ngai
The origins of these pancakes remain a mystery, but rumour has it that the southern coconut milk batter rendition hails from Khmer cooking, and the smaller and somewhat more adorable central varieties are said to be a culinary hybrid resulting from interaction between the Central Highlanders of Gia Lai Province, the ethnic Vietnamese and also the Cham citizens of Bình Định province during the days when the Champa Kingdom reigned in Central Vietnam.
In conclusion, it would be safe to say that it would take an exceptionally long time if one’s mission would to be to sample all variations of this fascinatingly simple yet appetizing dish. Banh xeo authenticity is highly debatable and hundreds of variations exist even in a single city of origin. However, it is hard to deny that it is almost always consumed with raw vegetables and a regional sauce for gastronomical balance.
Such differences in preparation and cooking process illustrate the exciting contrasts in tastes and ingredients that can exist even across a span of a few hundred kilometres. Yet another reason to discover the next banh xeo surprise on your next visit to Vietnam!
Bánh Xèo Cầu Ván - 211 Lũy Bán Bích, Tân Thới Hoà, Tân Phú, Hồ Chí Minh
Image source: Mervin Lee