A journey through Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam in search of the best cooking classes and culinary advice from chefs and grandmothers alike: in this three-part series Fine Dining Lovers presents the best dishes, tips, and tricks learnt along the way. The third stop: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for banh xeo, a savory shrimp, pork belly and mung bean pancake wrapped in bitter greens with herbs and a sweet and salty nuoc cham dipping sauce.
THE PLACE: HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM
Saigon Cooking Class, Ho Chi Minh City’s most popular cooking school, is located on the second floor of Hoa Tuc restaurant. Chef Khang used to work at the reputable downstairs restaurant, but now uses his impeccable knife skills and English to teach the secrets of Vietnamese lotus stem and banana blossom salads, pork and sticky rice fritters, and char-grilled beef in betel leaves to visitors and locals alike. The class menu changes weekly and is usually made up of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
For a pineapple-sweetened, tamarind-soured shrimp soup, Khang demonstrates how to slice the sponge-like elephant ear stalks thinner than the okra so it cooks in the same amount of time. He shows us how to peel the skin from wedges of tomato by laying them skin side down on the cutting board and slicing it carefully away as though filleting fish upside down. He demonstrates sieving the tamarind pulp directly into the soup (no pre-sieving or mess necessary), and carving hot chili pepper flowers for decoration. Through all this, he’s charming us, telling us about throwing shoes at the abundant wild tamarind trees of his town as a child to knock down the pods his mother to make dinner.
THE CROWNING DISH: BANH XEO WITH NUOC CHAM DIPPING SAUCE
Pronounced “bahn zeh-oh,” this thin, turmeric-tinged savory shrimp and pork pancake involves a wok and a lot of patience. “Where does the name come from?” I ask. “You’ll see,” says Klang, and makes me wait until the moment before he pours the batter into the pan to give the answer. Bahn means “cake” and xeo is the sound the batter makes as it hits the hot wok, he explains, timing the sound effect perfectly to prove his point. He then slowly rotates the semi-spherical wok over the gas grill so that the sides cook while the bottom doesn’t burn. The dish more closely resembles an egg-free omelet with a crispy crust than a fluffy pancake. Once the batter sets, Klang folds the pancake over itself and cuts it into wedges. Our own attempts at cooking the pancake on our individual stoves are more or less successful under Klang’s watchful eye, and we eat our pancake wedges wrapped in strongly flavored mustard greens with sweet basil and shiso or Vietnamese mint, all dipped in sweet nuoc cham—fish sauce, sugar, garlic and lime. Klang, the charmer, even tells us we’ve done a good job.
THE TECHNIQUE: ROTATE THE WOK ABOVE THE GAS GRILL
Similar to a crepe, pour the batter outward from the middle of the wok to within three centimeters from the edge so it’s as thin as possible. Then rotate the wok to distribute the heat evenly to the edges, holding it for twenty-second periods over various sections as they set. The art of the dish is in crisping the edges and bottom of the pancake sufficiently without burning them.
1. The trick to great banh xeo is essentially to shallow-fry it in oil. Make sure oil touches all the edges of the pancakes as it cooks, which will distribute the heat of the flame more evenly throughout the pancake. While you can make this dish using a flat-bottomed pan, this rotating technique is especially important when your pan is a wok. Thanks to the abundant oil, however, the pancake shouldn’t stick to the wok. And the crunchy, oily texture offsets the bitterness of the mustard green wraps and sweet and salty sauce.
2. Cook the pork belly and shrimp or other fillings first in oil before adding the batter to ensure that they cook thoroughly.
3. Banh xeo is often made with coconut milk, but a mix of coconut milk and coconut water lightens the resulting pancake.
After eating banh xeo you’ll never want a limp crepe again, so use the technique to cook crisp-bottomed omelets and crepes. Indian dosai and roti can be made the same way.
THE SHOPPING ADVICE
Rice flour, which differs from glutinous rice flour and sweet rice flour, is available at most Asian grocery stores.