This is what I made for dinner a few nights ago: bánh xèo, also known as sizzling pancakes. These are lacy, savory Vietnamese crêpes from Saigon. This recipe served as my main inspiration. It seems like Chef Charles Phan really knows his bánh xèo stuff.
Since I hadn’t gotten to the Asian grocery in the snow, I didn’t have access to mung beans, but I read it was possible to substitute peas instead, so I did that. I also added some bean sprouts—I’m not sure if that did anything or if that was even a good idea.
Making the batter was fun. It had a unique, light consistency that was easy to mix. The only thing I’d do differently next time is I’d add the turmeric to the rice flour before adding liquid—otherwise the turmeric can clump and then it’s harder to blend together.
I realized that some of the fun—and also what makes this project so interesting—is that you have to fully trust the recipe. Often, I have no idea if what I’m doing is coming out right until the “final draft” of the food is on my plate, whereas with dishes I’ve prepared often, I know if things are working each step of the way.
When the pancakes are cooking, they make a delightful sizzling sound. It’s fun to listen to, and this dish is fairly easy to make, especially if the batter and the sauce are made ahead of time. Creating the perfect crêpe, though, is somewhat of an art—my first few tore (I was trying to see if the bottom had become crispy yet) and another came out too thick. I’d like to get it down, though—these sizzling pancakes are delicious! They’re filling, too, so one pancake was plenty for dinner. I saved the rest of the batter for the next dinner, anticipating even crispier crêpes the next day.
The dipping sauce for bánh xèo, nước chấm, is made with fish sauce, something I didn’t have, so I substituted it for soy sauce after reading that it could be a suitable replacement. The dipping sauce, while not quite nuoc cham, was delicious, too.
Before making dinner I decided to replenish my avocado stock for those sinful sinh tố bơ—avocado shakes. While there, I was surprised to find fish sauce—I thought I’d have to get at a specialty grocery to find it, but my grocery had a small stock near the soy sauce. I was super excited to find it since a lot of Vietnamese dishes call for it.
As I was preparing tonight’s nước chấm, I started by adding a few drops of vinegar to some caster sugar (I ground a mason jar’s worth of it the night before to save time—caster sugar is another common Vietnamese ingredient.) I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I opened the bottle—maybe something similar to soy sauce—but I was taken aback by a pungent whiff. I hadn’t looked at the ingredients, so I thought I might be suddenly smelling the vinegar. To be sure, I took a drop of the sauce on my finger and tasted it. There was a mildly familiar, tangy, salty taste I couldn’t quite place.
I looked at the bottle: anchovies were the first ingredient. I’d later read that the anchovies used for nước chấm are fermented for at least six months, which adds another dimension to the flavor. It’s quite a surprise if you’re not expecting it, but it’s probably very healthy. I didn’t think I was going to like it, actually, but I made the nước chấm anyway and then made a side bowl of the nước chấm with soy sauce, just in case I really couldn’t handle the strong taste of the fish sauce. If you just put a little on the food, it actually tastes quite delicious. It has a light, slightly sweet and salty flavor to it. In fact, I even went back to try it with soy sauce, and after having tried the fish sauce on the pancakes, I found the soy sauce flavor slightly too heavy for the delicate pancakes. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the mint worked well with the other flavors, and was not overpowering at all as I had anticipated.
So there you have it—and this summer I’ll try making bánh xèo with mung beans in the batter.