Banh xeo: sizzling crepes

Banh xeo is a popular Vietnamese crispy, savory crepe filled with pork, shrimp, mushrooms, onions, mung bean paste, and bean sprouts.  It is usually eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with bean sprouts, cucumber, and a variety of aromatic herbs.

I don’t know why banh xeo has never been a particular favorite of mine.  Maybe it was the bean sprouts, to which I had an intense allergy as a child. Or maybe it was the mung bean paste, of which I wasn’t very fond.  Or maybe it was just the whole complicated process of it all–the myriad of fillings and garnishes, all of which need to be washed/prepared ahead of time.  And then there was the actual crepe making, not a quick process and a rather daunting one from the perspective of a young girl. But alas, as with many complicated Vietnamese dishes, I found myself wanting to conquer this challenge.  So, with some advice from mom (add eggs) and my brother (use beer), I took this one head on.  The first time was good but the second time was even better!  Unfortunately, I must confess that it really is a time consuming, though rather straightforward, effort.

Batter:
1 package banh xeo mix with turmeric
3 cups beer (the light and cheap stuff)
1 14 oz can of coconut milk, well shaken
2 eggs
5 scallions, green parts only, sliced thinly
vegetable oil (at least 1/2 cup)

Ground pork filling:
1/2 lb ground pork
1 teaspoon canola oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
5 scallions, white parts only, finely chopped

Mung bean paste (optional):
1/2 cup dried mung beans
1 cup water

Other fillings:
1/2 lb pork butt or loin, thinly sliced into bite size pieces
1/2 lb small shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1/2 lb shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, thinly sliced and sautéed lightly
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 cups bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
salt and pepper

Lettuce and herbs:
12 leaves green leaf or Boston lettuce, rinsed and dried
1 bunch mint leaves, rinsed and dried
handful cilantro, rinsed and dried
1/2 english cuke, sliced into thin 2-inch long slices

nuoc cham (Note: I also like to slice up half a large onion and a few radishes and add them to the nuoc cham, which pickles them.)

Prepare all the fillings first and have them assembled around the stove for easy access during cooking.  And if you’re feeling particularly confident, get two pans going!

Ground pork filling:  In a bowl, mix ground pork, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, and chopped white parts of the green onions.  In a sauce pan heat one teaspoon canola oil on medium-high heat, add ground pork mixture, breaking up any chunks into small pieces. Brown evenly and set aside.


Mung bean paste: Thoroughly rinse and drain mung beans and place in a pot with water.  Simmer on very low until beans are cooked through.  Mash with a fork and fluff.  Set aside.
Note: I haven’t quite perfected the mung bean paste yet.   You may want to start with just 3/4 cup water and add more as needed.  The beans are cooked when they are soft but you don’t want them to be too mushy.  The desired consistency is like mashed potatoes without any milk, butter, etc.

Lettuce and herbs: By now you must realize that many, if not all, Vietnamese meals are accompanied by a platter of lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber and aromatic herbs.  I tend to use mint, cilantro, and Thai basil, which are regularly available at most Asian markets.  If you are lucky, you’ll also find some purple perilla too. Just wash and dry all the lettuce and herbs and assemble on one or two communal plates.

Batter: In a large mixing bowl, combine the packaged banh xeo mix, turmeric, beer, coconut milk and eggs until smooth.  Add sliced green onions.  Using beer instead of water increases the crispness of the crepes.  And the addition of eggs helps to keep the banh xeo more flexible, which is key during the folding process.

When you are ready, pre-heat oven to 250 degrees and heat a 10 or 12-inch nonstick pan on medium-high heat and brush generously with oil.  When the pan is hot, add a few slices of onion, pork and two shrimp, adding a couple pinches or salt and pepper.  Arrange the cooked meat, onions and shrimp in one half of the pan (see photo)–keeping all the filling on one side makes it easier to fold the banh xeo in half later.

Once pork and shrimp are cooked, give the batter a stir and pour about 1/2 cup into the pan, swirling the pan to even out the batter.  Lower heat to medium-low, cover loosely with a lid for 2-3 minutes, then cook uncovered for another 2-3 minutes, drizzling crepe edge with oil (I use a brush for this).  As banh xeo is cooking, add ground pork, mung bean paste (if using), mushrooms, and bean sprouts to the half of that already has the pork and shrimp.  Once edges are crisp, fold banh xeo in half and cook for an additional  minute or two, lowering the heat as necessary.  Banh xeo should be crisp and yellow.  Remove and place on baking sheet in oven.

Repeat.

As you can see, this is not a quick process.  Depending on the size of your pan, it may take 6-8 crepes to finish the batter.  As you become accustomed to the process it is possible to work with two pans at once.  If your guests don’t mind some table talk, I prefer to make enough for one round of eating at a time so that the banh xeo don’t sit too long in the oven.

Serve banh xeo with the lettuce, herbs, cucumber, and nuoc cham.  Some people like to break off a piece and roll it with herbs and cuke, dipping in nuoc cham.  Others like to place everything in a bowl or plate, drizzle with nuoc cham and eat with chopsticks.  I prefer the former with either a good pilsner or glass of cold Vouvray.  Happy eating!

serves 4-6

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