MEAL IN A HALF-MOON
Call it a crêpe or an omelet, banh xeo is delicious all the same
If you've become interested in Vietnamese food and are wondering what to try after pho, banh xeo is the perfect next step. And if you're not yet interested in Vietnamese food, get with the program, because at the rate they're opening, it won't be long before Vietnamese restaurants outnumber Thai in Seattle. Luckily, banh xeo is also a great introduction to this Southeast Asian cuisine.
Banh xeo (the term is both singular and plural) are available at many Vietnamese restaurants in Seattle, but it's worth making them at home. The crêpes are delicious, of course, but perhaps more important, they are that elusive prize in cooking: a dish that looks much harder to make than it is.
A properly-made banh xeo and it's hard to make one improperly looks suspiciously like a big omelet. You could probably get away with calling it an omelet, and it's often billed as one on menus at Vietnamese restaurants. But even though a Vietnamese crêpe is an appetizing golden crescent, its batter is made with coconut milk and rice flour and doesn't contain a single egg.
Have you ever wished you could cook an omelet until the exterior is actually crisp, without drying out the eggs? A properly made banh xeo is like that: a satisfying range of textures. The bottom of the crêpe crisps up against the pan while the top is steamed and becomes chewy.
The most common filling for banh xeo is onions, bean sprouts, shrimp, mushrooms and pork. This is what you'll get when you order the superb banh xeo at The Lemongrass, an unassuming restaurant on First Hill.
But there's no need to be too traditional. Bambuza, a Vietnamese bistro in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, uses slivers of asparagus in its banh xeo, which are called Turmeric Crêpes.
"Banh xeo is a very typical thing you'd buy from a street vendor, more like a fast-food type of item, but then again it's also made with lots of fresh vegetables, on the spot," explains Daniel Nguyen, the owner (along with his parents) of Bambuza.
A banh xeo can be eaten with knife and fork, but it's best enjoyed as a wrap within a wrap by serving it with lettuce leaves and herbs (any combination of basil, mint, cilantro or the Vietnamese herb called rau ram, which tastes like spicy cilantro with lemon). Cut a small piece of banh xeo, wrap it in lettuce with a few herb leaves, and dip it into nuoc cham, a Vietnamese indispensable made of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chiles. It's a little tricky at first, but soon you will be the master wrapper known as M.C. Banh Xeo.
The wrapping doesn't have to stop there. "In central Vietnam, people are a little more formal," says Nguyen, whose father is from there. "They'll serve it with rice paper, so you'll put the rice paper down, you'll put the lettuce on top of that, then you'll break off pieces of the crêpe, then you'll roll it in rice paper and you'll dip it." In the central part of the country, that dipping sauce is more likely to be peanut-based. Both are available at Bambuza.
In southern Vietnam, banh xeo usually include a scatter of soaked and ground mung beans, and Bambuza serves the dish this way because Nguyen's mother, Lan Quach, is from the south, and she oversees the kitchen. The mung-bean version has a bit more flavor but can be chalky.
Banh xeo are hard to overcook and quick to mix up, so they're simpler than they might look. And if omelet folding makes you nervous, fear not: banh xeo are stiffer than eggs and easy to fold into a beautiful half-moon.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle free-lance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff.
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