“Vietnamese food looks simple, but it’s not,” says Nguyen Van Truong, a chef at Quan An Ngon and my indoctrinator into all things banh xeo. A wiry 29-year-old with tousled hair and a loose checked shirt, he displays a surprisingly even composure considering how many times I’ve already come close to setting the kitchen on fire. “It takes time to learn. And it’s very regional. You have to go to the region to learn how to make it.”
In my case, that wasn’t an option, since banh xeo as we know it today has no single origin. While the dish was created in Central Vietnam, it evolved remarkably on its journey south. Ho Chi Minh City restaurateurs changed the small pancakes into large, crispy crepes and added turmeric to the batter, giving them their signature mellow gold tint. Originally, the pancakes were wrapped in lettuce leaves; today, diners often roll them inside rice paper wrappers.
Since there’s no true birthplace of banh xeo, I settled for the next best thing: Quan An Ngon, the Hanoi restaurant that consistently draws crowds for its upscale take on Vietnamese street food.
To start out, Truong drizzles oil onto the wok and points to a nearby basket heaped with fillings. I throw in slivered onions, pre-boiled shrimp, strips of pork thickly bordered with fat. The sweltering heat of the open-air kitchen isn’t too pleasant, but Truong learned to make banh xeo in far less comfortable surroundings: after moving to Ho Chi Minh City at age 21, he stumbled across a middle-aged street vendor whose family had been making the crispy pancakes for generations. “They were delicious,” he says. “I asked, ‘Can you teach me?’”
It took Truong three months of apprenticeship to master the technique, but it feels like I’ll never learn. Putting the batter in is a delicate task. After the onions, shrimp and pork sizzle for a few minutes, you have to balance the wok on one hand while spreading a delicate ladleful of batter over the top with the other. My batter goes on completely evenly and smoothly, by which I mean it all pools in the middle and I almost drop the wok on Truong’s foot.
I ask Truong what the secret ingredient is in Quan An Ngon’s banh xeo. I’m fully prepared for him to tell me solemnly that he can’t share trade secrets, but he just laughs.
“There’s no secret ingredient. It’s all in how you make it,” Truong says. “The proportion of flour to water. How you put the batter in the wok. You have to control the wok so it goes on evenly. It can’t be too thick or thin.”
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I still have a while to go on that front. Still, with the wok back on the stove, my banh xeo doesn’t look too shabby — especially after I add handfuls of bean sprouts from a hanging wicker basket, which camouflages the gaping hole in the middle.
After a bit of steaming, it’s flipping time. This is a crucial step, so I watch Truong demonstrate on another wok. First, he loosens the crepe with a spatula so big it could easily paddle a canoe across West Lake. Then, with a quick flash of the arm, he flips the broad round into a flawless golden semicircle and turns it onto an enormous plate, where herbs and rice paper will be added.
I step up, hoping it will be as easy as it looks. The kitchen staff deveining shrimp on a nearby counter have all stopped what they’re doing to watch me. I’ve flipped pancakes plenty of times, but never anything as enormous as this banh xeo. I wish I’d paid more attention the time my high school French teacher did a crepe-making demonstration.
I manoeuver the spatula under the pancake and gingerly move it around. Then, with a deep breath, I flip it.
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To my relief, it doesn’t look terrible. Okay, it might not be worth VND48,000: the edges don’t quite meet and there are bean sprouts poking out of the bottom. But it’s enough to merit a “dung roi!” from Truong, a Vietnamese phrase that basically translates to “good job, now get your uncoordinated hands out of my kitchen”.
We sit at a table in the courtyard to sample my masterpiece. Cooled to room temperature and rolled between sheets of rice paper along with sprigs of shiso and coriander, the banh xeo bears little trace of the kitchen’s searing heat. But after cooking the dish, I see it in a new light. I notice for the first time how texturally complex it is, the flaky crepe balanced by crunchy bean sprouts and soft pork, the sweet dipping sauce tempered by the astringent herbs.
Emboldened by my success, I tell Truong that I’m going to make banh xeo at home. He looks dubious.
“It won’t be as good because you don’t have the restaurant equipment,” he warns me. But then his lips soften into a grin. “When you make it yourself, though, it tastes better than at any restaurant.”
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