One of my all time favorite Vietnamese dishes is banh xeo aka Vietnamese Sizzling Crepes - the name deriving from the sizzling sounds during the cooking process. For those who are unfamiliar, banh xeo is a delicate crepe made from rice flour, turmeric, coconut milk, scallions, and water/beer. Yes, beer - it yields a crispier result. The crepe itself is typically filled with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts. Crepes found in southern Viet Nam are thinner, larger in diamater, filled with mung beans, and are usually folded in half like a taco. Crepes found in the central region of Viet Nam are typically smaller, do not contain mung beans, and are served open faced. Certain regions in central Viet Nam also skip the turmeric altogether. Personally, I love the bright yellow color of banh xeo as it's consistent of typical Vietnamese food: colorful and vibrant.
The banh xeo itself is wrapped in lettuce or banh trang (rice wrappers) along with various herbs such as mint leaves, red perilla leaves, and Thai basil. You then dip the wrap into fish sauce. It's heaven in a bite.
The type of pork and shrimp used for the filling may vary. I've seen recipes that call for ground pork, pork butt, and pork shoulder. My mom always uses pork belly because she feels the same way about bacon as I do - undying devotion. Hence, I stick with pork belly. While most recipes you see will instruct you to sauté the pork, I adopt my mom's approach of poaching the pork belly because it retains its tenderness better.
As for the shrimp, my mom would use whole pieces of shrimp without the shell. You'll see that some recipes keep the shrimp shells in tact. I prefer not to because while I don't mind shrimp shell, I just don't prefer it in a delicate dish such as banh xeo. Since banh xeo is also a wrap and dip dish, I personally prefer chopping up large prawns into 3 so that they are bite size pieces. (I prefer U-15 prawns purchased from Costco.)
Non stick frying pan
1 pound sliced pork belly
1 pound med/large shrimp, chopped up into halves or thirds
1 medium onion, sliced
1 package of soy bean sprouts (500 grams), pre-steamed
1 tbsp of fish sauce
1.5 tbsp of sugar
1 package of banh xeo mix (it it doesn't come pre mixed with turmeric, add 1/2 - 1 tsp of turmeric)
1 cup coconut milk
5 stalks of scallion, chopped (more or less depending on personal preference)
3 cups of beer or water
(Cook's Note: use a blanche colored beer - ales will turn your crepes a brownish color instead of a vibrant yellow. If you do not use beer, do not fret about using water. I've made plenty of crisp crepes using just water.)
Red perilla leaves
This is the batter mix I use. It's sold at the local 99 Ranch Market. The turmeric is in a separate pouch attached at the top.
Mise en place: sliced onions, marinaded shrimp, marinaded pork belly, and batter
Note: In order to speed up the process of banh xeo making, I "pre-cook" my filling so that I'm not starting from the beginning cooking the protein for each individual banh xeo. (Gotta love mom imparting her wisdom)
1. Marinate the pork belly with the fish sauce, sugar, and white pepper. Set aside for about 20 minutes.
2. Salt and pepper the shrimp. Set aside.
3. While the protein marinates, prepare the batter. Combine the bank xeo mix, beer, coconut milk, and scallions. (Tip: If you want a more savory taste for the actual batter itself, after you poach the pork belly, use 1 cup of the stock and 2 cups of beer instead of 3 cups of beer). Set the batter aside for about half an hour so that the ingredients can "marry."
4. While the batter ingredients "marry," prepare a pot of boiling water. Poach the pork belly for about a minute. Don't over cook as it will further cook later with the batter.
5. Heat a non stick pan with 1 teaspoon of cooking oil. Sweat the onions.
6. Add shrimp to the pan. Do not completely sauté the shrimp. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
7. Heat 1 tsp of cooking oil over medium heat. Envision a line halfway down the middle of your pan. Distribute the pork, shrimp, and onion onto the pan so that it doesn't fall onto the imaginary line. This will make it easier to flip the crepe in half later on.
8. Using a ladle, stir up the batter as the mix will settle to the bottom of the bowl. Since the filling has already been pre-cooked, pour about 3/4 of a ladle of batter into the pan and quickly swirl the batter around so that a thin layer of batter is evenly distributed in the pan.
9. Add the pre-steamed bean sprouts to one side of the crepe. (As I'm right handed, I put the bean sprouts to the left of the imaginary line. When I go and flip the crepe later, I flip the side that doesn't have the bean sprouts.)
10. Lower the heat to medium low and cover the pan for 2 minutes.
11. Remove the lid. Return the heat to high. Once the edges of the crepe crisp up to a golden brown color, pour a small amount of cooking oil around the edges of the crepe so the edges avoid burning. It will also make it easier to flip the crepe in half. Let the high heat remain to crisp up the crepe. Be patient. If you flip too early, the crepe will not be crispy.
12. Using a spatula, flip the crepe in half (the side without the bean sprouts goes over the side with bean sprouts).
13. Do not lift the crepe to remove it from the pan. Tilt the pan and allow the crepe to slide on its own onto a plate.
Banh xeo is best when it's hot. If you wait, the crepe will turn soggy. Wrap the banh xeo in lettuce along with Thai basil, mint leaves, and red perilla leaves. Dip it in nuoc cham aka fish sauce to complete the experience.
Bon appétit mes amis!