Vietnamese bánh xèo might be the quintessential eating out food: seemingly designed to be served to order in a restaurant environment, these stuffed rice crêpes are a little finicky to put together at home. You need to have all of your fillings and herbs washed and prepped in advance, and then the crêpes themselves must be eaten as soon as they are cooked. Bánh xèo are thus not ideally suited to relaxed home cooking, especially if the cook wants to eat with her guests. Undeterred by the one-crêpe-at-a-time serving problem, I’ve made bánh xèo a few times, sucked in by their addictive combination of fresh leaves and soft, chewy pancake. I’m also a big fan of Viet dishes that involve wrapping things in lettuce and dipping into sauce – something about the do-it-yourself quality appeals in its tactility. And bánh xèo are actually quite easy to make – pouring the batter into a perfect circle takes a bit of practice, but unlike French crêpes, you don’t have to flip them. So once you commit to having everything chopped in advance, making bánh xèo offers almost instant sizzling gratification.
When I’ve eaten bánh xèo in restaurants, the filling has always been shrimp and pork, but I’ve read that in Vietnam there are many more variants. I’ll be able to research this important question later in the year when I go on my very exciting eating trip to Southeast Asia, but for now I have been experimenting with the wide world of Things One Could Put in Bánh Xèo. As is the way with such experiments, it has often been led by things I have in the fridge. This time, I hit on a combination of lop cheong and smoked tofu along with the traditional beansprouts and scallions.
I should say that I’m a bit obsessed with lop cheong (or lap xuong in Vietnam). This air-dried and cured Asian sausage is sweet and almost winey tasting, and often very fatty. It provides some of the unique flavour in Chinese sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf and it’s a great pantry staple. The first web page I ever made was about lop cheong: I was at a deathly dull class on web design and we were asked to make a mock up of a site for work. Most of my classmates seemed to have all their material ready to go but I was recently hired and didn’t have anything to use. Naturally, I made a website about sausages, and a sample page on lop cheong. I think the class leader thought I was taking the mickey, but I did end up making friends with the woman sitting next to me, who turned out to be a fellow fan of the Chinese sausage. Anyway, the point is that it should come as no surprise that I came up with the idea of adding this air-dried sweet sausage to my Vietnamese crêpes.
Bánh xèo with lop cheong and tofu
If you wanted to make this dish vegetarian, obviously just leave out the sausage and add more smoked tofu. It’s worth getting the smoked kind for both flavour and texture.
- 1/4 cup yellow split mung beans, soaked for 30 mins
- 1 1/2 cup coconut milk
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 cup rice flour
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- vegetable oil
- 1 block smoked tofu
- 5 lop cheong
- 4 handfuls beansprouts
- bunch of scallions
- 1 lettuce
- bunch of mint
- bunch of cilantro
- bunch of Thai basil
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 tsps palm sugar
- 2 Thai red chilies
- 1 lime
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
Firstly, you want to soak your mung beans. They only take a half hour and add a really nice nuttiness to the batter. This crêpe batter I learned from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet, a splendid book on Southeast Asian food cultures.
While you’re waiting for the mung beans to soften, make the nuoc cham dipping sauce.
Begin by pounding a small garlic clove in a mortar and pestle along with a chili. (You might want to chop the chile finely first to make life easier.) Next, add the palm sugar and pound until it becomes liquidy. It looks like a lot of sugar but be generous: this amount is a minimum and you might well want more. Next add the fish sauce and a good glug of warm water. Stir to dissolve the sugar well. Now decant into a bowl and add the juice of a lime. Taste for flavour balance. You might find yourself adding more lime juice or more water. Set aside.
Now make the pancake batter. Put drained mung beans and coconut milk into a mini prep or small blender and process till smooth. (Don’t do this in a big food processor as it won’t work and will look disgusting. Trust me on this.) Move to a larger blender and add the water, rice flour, salt, sugar and turmeric and process till smooth again. Now sieve the batter to get rid of lumps and let stand for a half hour.
While you’re waiting, prepare the filling and toppings. Slice the lop cheong thinly and steam for 15 minutes. Chop the scallions and tofu. Wash the lettuce leaves, beansprouts and herbs. Put the greens on a plate for serving, and lay out the fillings close to the cooker.
Now you’re ready to make the crêpes. Heat a wok or non-stick frying pan to high and wipe the surface with a paper towel soaked in oil. Pour in 1/3 cup of batter and as you pour, lift and angle the pan to make the batter run into a circle. Put it back on the heat and distribute sausage, tofu and beansprouts over half the surface. Cover, turn down the heat to medium and cook for 3 minutes. The underside of the crêpe should be browning and a bit crispy, the top side soft and bubbled. Lift the crêpe onto a plate and fold in half.
Serve immediately as you cook them, for guests to wrap in lettuce and herbs.
Serves 4 for a main course, more for appetisers.
Recipe adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet.