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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Banh Xeo in Ho Chi Minh City

I am not normally fond of meals wrapped in pastry (unless they happen to be highly meat & cheese specific, the ultimate being the famed burrito of Amexico, or the mighty kebap of the Trung-dong, or the Dong-trung, or however they call the Middle-East in Vietnamese!) When it comes to largely vegetable or roots & shoots spreads wrapped in pastry I am afraid you are going to have to count me out, as John Lennon once asserted, defiantly. It doesn't look good, it doesn't crunch good, and I am not exactly sure why. Maybe I had the odd bad experience with monjayaki in Japan, or a soggy okonomiyaki in some park somewhere beneath the cherry blossoms. My mother always used to make me soggy sandwiches with prefreezed thawed out on the kitchen sink in the morning sun white bread when I was at school, in hicksville Australia. The slices of bread would still be icy while she was buttering them up, coating them with Vegemite. However, no need to fear bad cooking here -- the Vietnamese have a knack for kicking life into the types of food which often taste bland in other countries (Vietnam style rice porridge being a prime example). So, bánh xèo may yet surprise me. Many claim it is the best food to be found in southern Vietnam, and its popularity has spread to other parts of the world. For the uninitiated, bánh xèo (literally "cake sizzling") are Vietnamese crepes stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. If the photos on the Internet are anything to go by, the bean sprouts sure do outnumber the bodies of shrimps of the pieces of pork, and that is what concerns me. I am disturbed by the thought of biting through pastry to discover limp vegetable matter, soggy waterlogged vegetable pastry mush... that makes me want to barf. To intensify the greens factor, bánh xèo are wrapped in vegetable leaves... for example, mustard leaf, lettuce leaves, etc. Wrapping food in leaves and then plonking the finished product into a dipping sauce is a big tradition in Vietnam...

Chefs sizzling at their wo(r)k, in Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam, 2010)

Why do they give bánh xèo the fiery, explosive name that they do? Noodlepie the lonely food nerd and conqueror of Indochina says: "While the recipe itself might be a piece of piss, getting it right requires a deft hand, a frying pan as hot as the sun and a nibble touch with the batter." As if to echo my aforementioned sogginess fears, Noodlepie carries on: "Bánh xèo pancakes should be crispy on the outside and ever so slightly moist on the inside. Leaving it hanging around too long and you've got a soggy savoury crepe on your hands and you don't want that, believe me..."

I have watched a few videos of bánh xèo being cooked, and it seems the secret to its explosive crispiness lies in the way the chef swiftly swirls the batter around the hot wok. In the photo above you can see a bánh xèo chef at work on his wok, halfway through the swirl. That's how they do it, Saigon street style. In the video below, you can see how the pro's do it at home.

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