My four-year old daughter is learning the sounds that letters make. L – luh – is for ladybird. D – duh – is for dad. V – vuh – is for Vietnamese pancakes! I grinned from ear to ear when she said this. I love that she worked it out by herself, but even more so that she’s as enthusiastic as her slightly nutty mother for this delicious meal that we’ve started eating at home.
This is a very happy meal for me. We had a two-week holiday in Vietnam a few months ago, and cooking Vietnamese for dinner takes me back. Our little but wonderful holiday was such a teaser, and when we got home I wanted it to continue somehow. I buried myself in Vietnamese cookbooks and headed down to the local Vietnamese market whenever I had the chance, keeping us in supply of the essential bean sprouts, lettuce, herbs and rice vermicelli for bahn xeo (these pancakes) and bun cha (a kind of salad with barbecued pork belly, pork patties, rice vermicelli, herbs, lettuce and a delicious sweet sauce).
With our two young kids and my extended family, the trip was not a carefree backpacker odyssey. In fact, at times it was rather a challenge, especially with our one-year old, but still, there were some real highlights and we got plenty from the experience. It whet our appetite for travelling with our kids hopefully many more times to come. Our daughter lapped it up and was my companion in having noodles whenever we could.
We stayed in nice hotels and resorts (and had a few nights on a boat), and our breakfasts were the buffet variety. With that meal taken out of the equation each day, and with our fairly hectic itinerary, plus being sometimes limited with our young kids, we only managed to enjoy proper ‘street food’ three times! But less can be more, and we really appreciated the authentic local meals we did have – like the gorgeously silken fresh rice noodle rolls filled with pork and mushroom that we found after a long walk one drizzly night in Hanoi. And the chicken rice Vietnam-style with carrot and daikon salad and sprigs of Thai basil that we found in a laneway full of motorbikes in Hoi An.
At the Red Bridge Cooking School near Hoi An, my family had a private cooking class in a beautiful open-air hut in a tropical garden on a riverbank. We were shown a version of Vietnamese pancakes. Called bahn xeo – ‘sizzling cake’ – there are many variations of these crispy yellow pancakes with different fillings, accompaniments, sauces and even different ingredients in the batter. Lots of herbs and bean sprouts are mandatory.
The recipe from the cooking school had a simple batter of rice flour, turmeric, salt and water, but when I came home I discovered that other versions of bahn xeo are made with split mung beans in the batter. Always on the lookout to get more grains and legumes in our diet, this is what I like to include in my batter, too.
The cooking school served their pancakes with a peanut sauce, which I believe is common in central Vietnam – and while I adore peanut sauces in just about any form, I’ve decided I like the clean, refreshing taste of the more familiar sweet fish sauce with these pancakes.
Pork and prawns are the classic bahn xeo filling – but I tend to gravitate towards what I have to hand such as leftover roast pork. Otherwise I like to use squid, which is sustainable, cheap, delicious and easy to cook, particularly if you can get a friendly fishmonger to clean your squid for you. I’ve also been known to add chopped dried shrimp to the batter if we’re lacking in another form of protein in the house, or even just to serve the pancakes vegetarian with the herbs and bean sprouts – simple and elegant.
This might look difficult to make, but like a lot of things, once you’ve done it once it becomes easy. After you prepare the various components, it’s as straightforward as cooking any other kind of pancakes. Use two frying pans if you can – it just means you can join the table sooner.
½ cup split mung beans, soaked for 30 minutes
440 ml water
1 cup rice flour
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
200 ml coconut milk
handful of garlic chives or ½ bunch spring onions (scallions), finely sliced
oil for frying
Fish sauce (nuoc cham)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 garlic clove, crushed
1–2 small red chillies, finely chopped
juice of 1 small lime or ½ lemon (to taste)
1 tablespoon water
Fillings and accompaniments
finely sliced squid stir-fried with salt and garlic; or boiled and shelled prawns; or freshly stir-fried pork; or leftover cooked pork
a few handfuls of bean sprouts
a few varieties of herbs such as coriander (cilantro), mint, perilla (also called shiso, or purple mint – absolutely delicious if you can get it), Thai basil and Vietnamese mint
lettuce of just about any variety
Drain the mung beans and place in a mixing bowl with roughly half the water. Use a stick blender to puree the beans with the water. (Alternatively you could do this in a blender.) Stir in the rice flour, turmeric, salt and sugar. When well combined, add the remaining water and coconut milk. Stir in the garlic chives or spring onions and set the batter aside for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
To make the sauce, combine the ingredients in a bowl and keep stirring from time to time until the sugar has dissolved. Taste – and if desired add more fish sauce, sugar, or lime or lemon juice. It shouldn’t be too tart.
Prepare the fillings: cook the squid or slice the pork, etc; wash the bean sprouts, herbs and lettuce leaves and set them out on plates.
Give the batter another stir. Heat a frying pan over medium heat until it is just starting to smoke. (A good hot pan will stop the pancakes from sticking.) Add a splash of oil and tilt the pan to spread it around, then add a ladleful of batter. Tilt the pan to let the batter spread out into a thin pancake – it doesn’t matter if it isn’t symmetrical and has ragged edges. Cook for a few minutes until you can see that it is becoming golden underneath. Flip and cook for another minute on the other side, until the pancake is nicely crisp. Remove to a plate. Add another splash of oil to the frying pan then another ladle of batter.
While you continue cooking pancakes this way, top each hot cooked pancake with a few pieces of squid, prawns or pork, a small handful of bean sprouts and a generous amount of herb sprigs. Fold the pancake in half and send it to the table where your guests can start eating. Just cut or tear off a piece of pancake, place it inside a lettuce leaf, drizzle on a little sauce, then wrap up and eat with your fingers.
If you can, have two frying pans going at once so you get the pancakes cooked quicker. Or just enjoy cooking the pancakes short order-style in one frying pan while your guests gobble down your pancakes and surely love you to bits.