It could, I suppose, have been the weather.
It's been unfairly hot and punishingly humid around the Valley all through September. Mosquitoes have been feasting on us, hair has been limp, eyeliner has been running.......but it all seems so very much more romantic if you close your eyes and imagine that instead of sweaty Phoenix you might be in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (once Saigon), clinging to the back of a motor scooter weaving its way through the humidity and the crowded streets, on your way to some fresh, streetside fare like phở.....or perhaps bánh xèo and chao tom?
It might also have been because of the discovery Mike and I made this month of our new favorite Vietnamese soup house, a place so nice we visited it twice......in a single week. 'You--back again??" roared the cheerful female Vietnamese proprietor when I strolled back in just two days after having eaten a lovely meal there and chatting with her and her husband over steaming bowls of beef tendon and tripe in broth. I threw up my hands in an 'I give up' gesture, laughing at the absurdity and admitting to her the cravings that both my husband and I had been suffering for her soup ever since we'd first been. Vietnamese cuisine, as it turns out, can be a highly addictive substance.
Still, when the second challenge for Project Food Blog came along and challenged me to choose 'an ethnic classic that is outside your comfort zone,' Vietnamese didn't immediately spring to mind. After all, there are so many places I've never traveled, not even at the end of a fork, so many cultures I've never visited. I've never had taro in Tahiti or hákarl in Iceland, never known what it's like to sample ajiaco or arepas in Colombia, or sega wat with injera in Ethiopia. I think of myself as a fearless cook, ready to tackle even the most unknown-to-me dishes, but truthfully there are a lot of things that could be said to be 'outside of my comfort zone.' Finally, I remembered that first, ecstatic bowl of phở and my head cleared. I have a lot of enthusiasm for eating Vietnamese food, clearly, but not much experience actually preparing it myself. At home. From scratch. With authentic ingredients. Envisioning a trip to our local pan-Asian megamarket (the venerable LeeLee Market, originator of such previous posts as this one), I excitedly began researching recipes.
Phở was too simple, too obvious. Phở is arguably a food whose time has come, one which has gone mainstream in a major and well-deserved way. Even my non-foodie friends are starting to talk about it, a sure sign of the times. And soup, even divine, sublime soup just didn't seem.......challenging enough for a Project Food Blog challenge. Where's the flash, the drama, the sweat? Where's the oh-my-God-this-might-fail-at-the-last-crucial-moment cooking method? Soup just..........simmers. And then my brain rested on something else, something I've never cooked or eaten, from a country I've never visited. A dish I've never even seen except through others' descriptions and photographs. A street food sizzling-crepe classic known as bánh xèo.
As with any local specialty in the world, there are as many different ways to make bánh xèo as there are local regions where it is made. There may even be as many different ways as there are people in all of Vietnam. Most seem to agree, however, that pork, shrimp and bean sprouts are the preferred filling. I settled on a version that includes turmeric, rice flour and coconut milk in the banh batter. Also, interestingly enough, this particular recipe calls for........beer. Some recipes called only for water, but I reasoned that beer as an ingredient would result in the light, bubbly batter I needed to make the wafer-thin, crispy and ever so slightly chewy pancakes I was after. So, beer* it was.
( *Full disclosure: No Vietnamese beer of any kind being available, even at our beloved LeeLee Market, I reached for a popular Chinese brew instead. Still delicious.)
The name bánh xèo is adorably onomatopoetic, a fancy term meaning that to say the word aloud suggests a sound, in this case the sound of a thin crepe merrily sizzling in hot, splattering oil over a searingly hot skillet. Banh ssssssssssssaaaayyyoww. It's even fun to say!
To accompany our bánh xèo, I chose another popular dish known as chao tom, a juicy little shrimpcake made of finely minced shrimp, sugar, scallion and a little beaten egg, molded kebab-style around a skewer of sugar cane which also imparts its sweetness to the dish. These are then grilled over coals until lightly charred to perfection, then dipped in salty fish sauce and enjoyed. I've had chao tom before, including a fantastic version at a little Vietnamese place on a side street of Hong Kong, and they're amazing as an accompaniment to just about everything. Plus, if you're going to stand at your kitchen counter and peel and devein a pound of shrimp for an hour, you might as well get an extra shrimp dish out of the whole affair, am I right? Right.
Some slight trouble arose when Mike and I realized that the simple-enough-sounding little shrimpcakes, in order to achieve maximum deliciousness and authenticity, would need to be grilled outside over charcoal. We hadn't grilled all summer. We looked at each other and froze in horror, having both just remembered the day we threw out our rusted old Weber grill, several months prior to this moment, in a fit of extreme spring cleaning. True, the thing was on its last aluminum legs, rusted almost completely through the bottom, and had originally been purchased in rough shape by me at a Goodwill, five years earlier. But at that moment I would have given anything to have the old girl back. How on earth were we going to cook the savory-sweet, smokey, juicy morsels of fragrant shrimp paste of my dreams?
In what I like to think of as the true street food vendor spirit, we devised an improvised plan that worked suprisingly well, involving hot coals, an old saucer-shaped metal firepit that was also hanging around the yard (no photos of our yard will be shown, for obvious reasons....the theme song from 'Sanford & Son' is already running through my head), and long, oiled strips of twisted aluminum foil. Mission Grill? Accomplished!
With the chao tom out of the way, I set myself to the task of putting together the bánh xèo, which comes together at very, very high temperature in a short matter of minutes. The batter was whisked together and set aside while I chopped scallions and sliced pork shoulder. The bean sprouts and small brown beech mushrooms were lightly stir-fried in a small amount of vegetable oil and a pinch of salt, then also set aside. Finally, it was time to put everything in the pan, super-heated and shimmering with vegetable oil. First in went the slices of pork, which were swirled briefly until almost cooked, and then the shrimp. The batter I poured directly on top of this and swirled again until it was as thin a crepe as I could possibly make it. The characteristic sizzle was happening here, the desired crispy edges appearing. The bánh xèo cooked from the edges inward, and when the cooking had all but reached the center I spread the rest of the filling of bean sprouts and mushrooms on one side, then lifted the other side of the crepe and gently folded it over--bánh xèo at this point should be hot, oily and crackling but still soft enough to manipulate.
I slid one masterpiece onto a plate and held my breath, feeling like someone on the verge of a new discovery. It smelled amazing. It even sounded amazing. It was sizzling. Sssssssssssssaaaayyyoww!
And then Mike whisked it, and the plate that followed, away for photo-taking and our once-sizzling Saigon crepes eventually became cold bánh xèo that needed to be reheated--gasp!--in the oven. Such is the lot in life of a food blogger, I suppose. We suffer a little so that you may enjoy photographs taken right at the moment our lovely newborn food enters the world, steaming hot and already dying a little every second. And anyway, even rewarmed from the oven they tasted amazing--each bite is wrapped in cooling lettuce leaf and mint leaves, then dipped in your condiment of choice, pickled chili-garlic paste, lime juice, nuoc mam. The fresh, herbal zing of the greens containing the rich sliced meats and crackling pancake, bound together by a splash of salty sauce was true heaven.
So, bánh xèo: the ingredients, the method, the taste, even the pronunciation......it's no longer outside my comfort zone but has become a true comfort food in my mind.
Say it with me again..........baaaanh sssssssssssssssssssaaaayyyoww! It's a good, good thing. A classic, even.
1/3 lb. shrimp (I bought 1 lb., the remainder was used in the chao tom)
2 T. beer
splash of fish sauce
1/2 lb. pork shoulder
1/2 C. bean sprouts
1/4 C. brown beech mushrooms
2/3 C. rice flour
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/3 C. beer (use something light in color and taste, a pilsner, lager or similar)
1/3 C. coconut milk, unsweetened
6 T. vegetable or canola oil
dipping condiment of choice (pickled chili-garlic paste, lime juice, nuoc mam, etc)
Peel and devein shrimp (chef's tip: a cold beer helps accomplish this task much more enjoyably), place in bowl and splash lightly with beer, fish sauce and sugar, mix briefly and set aside. Thinly slice pork shoulder, set aside.
Heat skillet to high, add 2 T. oil and quickly stir fry bean sprouts and mushrooms with a pinch of salt until just soft. Remove from pan, set aside, and wipe out pan.
In a large or medium sized mixing bowl, whisk together coconut milk, turmeric and rice flour. Chop scallions and add to batter. Add beer, whisk lightly just to combine, and set aside.
Add 2 T. oil (you will use the last 2 T. to cook the second crepe) to skillet and heat on high until oil is shimmering. Throw pork slices (enough for one serving, serving size is up to you) in pan and swirl in oil for about 20 seconds, add shrimp (again, enough for one serving) and continue to swirl pan until meat is just cooked. Pour half of batter into pan and quickly swirl until batter forms as large and thin a crepe as possible. When crepe has almost fully cooked (the edges should appear slightly drier and more cooked, while only the very center still looks a little raw and batter-y), spread half of the bean sprout and mushroom filling on one side of crepe, then gently fold other side of crepe over this as though making an omelet. Slide onto plate and listen for the sizzle! Make second crepe just the same as the first, using everything you have left.
To assemble, I recommend picking up each bite wrapped in a leaf of lettuce and a few mint, then dipping in sauce of your choice (fish sauce, nuoc mam, is great here).
2/3 lb. shrimp
1 tsp. cornstarch or rice flour
1 beaten egg
1/4 tsp. five spice powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 scallion, finely chopped
one fresh sugar cane stalk, cut into 12 equal, skewer-sized pieces
Heat charcoal in a grill (or improvised grilling device of your choice!). Peel and devein shrimp, place in bowl of food processor*, pulse until coarsely chopped. Add all other ingredients, process until mixture has become a sticky paste which is not completely smooth (it should hold together as a paste, but there should still be small chunks visible in the mixture, for texture). Form in equal amounts around each sugar cane skewer, refrigerate until coals have reached their optimum temperature.
( *Instead of using a food processor, you can also use a chef's knife to finely mince ingredients, or a traditional mortar and pestle to grind them together into a paste.)
Grill on a well-oiled grate over coals (this is important, or they will stick badly), turning once, until cooked to your desired level of doneness. Enjoy straight off the skewer, or wrapped in mint leaves and dipped in fish sauce. Chewing the cane and squeezing a little sweet juice out with your teeth after each salty bite is a wonderful idea. Enjoy!