This may come as no surprise to most of you, but Vietnamese food just ain’t quick nor easy. The soups can take upwards of 8 hours to simmer; there are endless vegetables and herbs to wash and chop; heck, even fish sauce takes forever to ferment (not that I recommend doing this yourself). Right up there in terms of difficulty and time-consuming is banh cuon–a delicate rice crepe filled with savory ground pork and wood ear mushrooms. Every time I make this dish Mrs. Next Doors tells me I don’t have to, that I’m crazy. Imagine pouring rice flour batter on a piece of cloth stretched over a boiling pot of water, then gently removing the steamed crepe with a flat wooden stick, and finally rolling it full of pork and mushroom. Now imagine repeating that process at least nine more times, as that’s how many banh cuon a mildly hungry person could consume in mere minutes. Forget about making banh cuon for a party–it would take you a whole day! And just in case you don’t think that steaming individual crepes over a boiling pot of water is difficult, check it out here.
So, now that you are thoroughly intimidated, let’s get started! Just kidding. I learned to make banh cuon from watching my aunts, and thankfully, they did not use the steaming pot method; instead, they used a nonstick frying pan. Yep, genius. That said, the pan method still takes a long time and quite a bit of practice to produce paper-thin, translucent crepes. Make sure the pan is hot, well oiled, and be quick with your wrist to swirl and shake the batter evenly as it hits the pan. When you’re really feeling cocky and want to show off, get two pans going at once (juggling not required)! With just one pan, I can make about 60 banh cuon in 90 minutes, and that’s just the actual crepe making and rolling part. Just saying.
1 lb ground pork
2 cups shredded wood ear mushrooms (soak in warm water for 5 minutes, rinse thoroughly, and drain)
1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons fish sauce
two packages banh cuon mix
2 tablespoons canola oil (or vegetable oil)
8 cups cold water
canola oil as needed (about 1/3 cup)
two romaine hearts, cut into thin strips, about 5 cups
one english cucumber, cut into match sticks
2 cups mint leaves, rinsed and thoroughly dried
3 cups bean sprouts, rinsed, quickly blanched in boiling water, and cooled to room temperature
cha lua (optional)
Filling: Heat 2 tablespoons canola oil on medium high heat, add onion, shallot and garlic until fragrant–about 1 minute. Add ground pork, salt, black pepper and fish sauce, and cook thoroughly, making sure to break any large chunks of meat into tiny pieces. Add shredded wood ear mushrooms and stir to combine, cooking until nearly all the liquid at the bottom of the pan is gone–about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.
(Note: I use dried shredded wood ear mushrooms, which are then reconstituted in warm water. You can also use whole dried ones that you can slice yourself.)
Crepe batter: I use packaged banh cuon mix, because really, it’s already time-consuming enough without having to mix my own flour, etc. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together one package of banh cuon mix with 4 cups cold water and 1 tablespoon oil. Keep the whisk handy to keep the batter well mixed.
Crepe making: Heat a nonstick pan (either 8 or 10 inch works best) over medium-low heat until hot. Using a pastry brush, apply oil to the pan and allow it to reheat briefly. Holding the pan above the flame, quickly pour less than 1/4 cup batter (1/8 cup if using an 8 inch pan) into the pan while swirling and shaking the pan to create a thin crepe. Don’t worry if there are any holes or if the crepe is oddly shaped; the goal here is thinness. Cover pan with a lid and cook for 1 minute. Brush oil on 1/2 of a cookie sheet and quickly flip the crepe onto the oiled surface. If crepe does not immediately release, tap the pan handle against the cookie sheet rim firmly.
Once the crepe has released, carefully stretch it out to remove any wrinkles, but really don’t try too hard as blemishes are usually easy to conceal. There are many ways to make the banh cuon, but my preferred way is to place a small amount (about 1 heaping tablespoon) of the filling in a straight line across the widest part of the crepe, then gently fold the crepe in half and roll into a log. Et voila. Place the finished crepe on a plate or rectangular glass baking dish. Repeat. (Do not keep banh cuon in a warm oven as they will dry out.)
You’ll need to make about 10-16 per individual serving, depending on the size of the crepes and the appetite of the individual. Alas, it won’t be quick but it will be good.
Once you’ve nearly used up all the batter, refill by whisking another bag of banh cuon mix with 4 cups water and 1 tablespoon oil and continue on your merry crepe-making way.
Note: Other folding/rolling options, include arranging the filling in a rectangular form in the middle and then folding the sides of the crepe to make a rectangular parcel that can then be folded in half again into a smaller rectangle. You can do a quick google search to see some what some of these options look like.
Plating: Banh cuon can be eaten warm or at room temperature. To warm, place a single layer of banh cuon on a plate or dish, cover with a damp paper towel and microwave for 30-60 minutes. On a dinner plate, arrange 8-10 banh cuon atop a flat bed of lettuce, mint, cucumber, and bean sprouts. Sprinkle with fried shallots and serve with nuoc cham for drizzling or dipping. Makes 6-8 servings.
Another popular accompaniment is cha lua, a bologna-like pork sausage that is steamed in banana leaves. I am not a huge fan of cha lua, but many Vietnamese like it with banh cuon. Cha lua can be purchased freshly made from a Vietnamese bakery or market (Vietnamese sandwich shops would also carry some). If you would like to serve your banh cuon with cha lua, slice the log in half lengthwise and then slice each half into 1/8 inch thin semi-circles. Arrange cha lua slices on top of the banh cuon.