Over the past twenty years or so, bánh xèo has been a mainstay of family and friend gatherings if my mom is around. Yen’s visiting home from college? Better make bánh xèo! You want to have some friends over for dinner? Time for bánh xèo! It’s a Saturday in October and the cousins are coming around? Let’s do some bánh xèo, baby!
These are a super fun party food (where the party is the food): everyone gets a plate and a little saucer for dipping sauce, and the giant fresh pancakes go on platters in the middle. You take a small amount with your chopsticks, trying to get the perfect mix of batter, onions, bean sprouts, and meat/seafood, and wrap it in a little taco of lettuce, mint, apple/cucumber, and whatever other herbs you have on hand. Dip the whole taco in your sauce and eat it in two or three bites. Then do it again. And everyone does it at once!
Note: these can definitely be made vegetarian or vegan. The batter is vegan, and for filling we’ve had great luck with mushrooms, sprouts, and mung beans. For the dipping sauce, substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce and add a little bit more lime and a little less sugar to balance out the saltiness.
I’m not usually a huge mise en place fan; I like chopping while things are cooking, but bánh xèo happen so fast that it’s worth it to put in extra prep. For eating, you need to wash all your vegetables and put them out on a platter. You’ll probably have time to make the dipping sauce while a pancake is cooking, but it takes a lot of time to pluck Vietnamese perilla (shiso would work in a pinch) and mint leaves off their stems, leaf lettuce, thinly slice cucumbers and apples, etc. So lay those out. Now the batter has to rest for ten minutes or so after mixing it, so do that before you start chopping your raw ingredients.
Growing up we always had squid in our bánh xèo, but we stopped doing that when we moved away from easily accessible Asian markets. So now it’s mostly pork (a lean, unfatty cut like tenderloin is good here) and shrimp, mainstays of Vietnamese cooking. My mom prefers buying the unpeeled shrimp because she says they’re sweeter and more flavorful (I agree), and we slice them in half down the spine so they cook super fast. You want very thinly sliced pork; it helps if it’s chilled. Also thinly sliced onions are key, as well as a ton of green onion (the more the better). My mom puts in two bunches of sliced up green onion per packet of batter, which makes around 6-8 very large servings (depending on the size of your pan, that’s 10-20 pancakes). Hence the party food-nature of this dish.
The batter is important- if you’re super hardcore I guess you could make your own, but we always buy from a bag. Our favorite is the one with elephants on it, below–certain other brands are a little too gluey or not crispy enough, or include coconut flour and pretend that coconut flour+water=coconut milk. If you can’t find Bon Con Voi Banh Xeo batter, just try to buy one that requires adding coconut milk. Then follow the instructions on the bag: mix in the turmeric, a can of coconut milk, and a can or two of water (read the label). Let sit while you chop the other stuff.
Now it’s time to cook! Mix those prechopped green onions into the batter. Heat up your nonstick skillet (or two if you’re ambitious). Add in a bit of oil and a handful of thinly sliced onions, then after 30 seconds or so put in your thinly sliced pork and shrimp and cook them for a minute or two, until they’re done.
Now ladle on just enough of the batter to cover the pan if you swirl it. Think the thinness of crepes. I’d lean toward ladling on not enough, swirl, and then add in a bit more to fill the pan rather than having a thick gluey pancake.
Now you’ll have a pale daffodil soft thing with some cooked meat inside it, and a clearly slightly liquid middle. Fill it with a generous handful of bean sprouts (mung beans if you’re into that sort of thing too), and cover it with a lid to lightly steam the sprouts while cooking the pancake. Give it about a minute (so this whole process is taking you about 5 minutes per pancake), until the pancake is no longer pale but a golden turmeric color, and its visibly cooked.
Gently fold it in half like an omelet, and slide it out of the pan onto a waiting plate. Serve immediately with dipping sauce and that premade plate of veggies!
My mom’s banh xeo. Makes so much (serves 8 hungry people)
1 package of banh xeo flour
1 can coconut milk
2-3 bunches of green onion
2 lb pork tenderloin or butt or any non-fatty cut
2 lb shrimp
1 big onion (yellow or white is fine)
2 packages of bean sprouts
2 heads of lettuce (I prefer red leaf, my mom likes Romaine but she is wrong here)
2 cucumbers, 2 Fuji apples
2 bunches of Vietnamese perilla or shiso, 1-2 bunches of cilantro, 1-2 bunches of mint (the regular grocery store mint is fine)
2 TB Fish sauce
2 TB Sugar
1 carrot and a carrot-sized piece of daikon if you’re feeling ambitious (we did not)
- Batter: Finely chop up all your green onion, then follow package instructions.
- Veggies: Wash everything. Leaf the lettuce and herbs, cut the apples and cucumbers into thin slices (cut the cucumber in thirds lengthwise, then cut into slices).
- Dipping sauce: Mix two tablespoons of sugar with the juice of the limes and 2 TB of water until dissolved. Add in two tablespoons of fish sauce. Taste. Adjust levels of everything until it’s not too sweet, not too salty, and not too sour. If it’s overpowering, add more water. If you’re ambitious, finely grate the carrot and daikon into the sauce; they’ll slightly pickle while it’s sitting and offer some textural contrast when you eat.
- Pancakes: Thinly slice pork (about 1/8 of an inch thick if you can, 1 inch by 2 inch rectangles), peel shrimp and slice in half, thinly slice onion. Heat large skillet over medium high. Add about 1 TB of neutral oil and half a handful of onion, stir. Then add 4-8 pieces each of pork and shrimp and gently saute until just cooked. Ladle only a little bit of batter over the cooked ingredients, and swirl to cover pan. Edges should cook very quickly.
- Cover pancake with a handful of bean sprouts, then cover with a lid. Leave for 1-2 minutes, until bean sprouts are slightly steamed and center of pancake is cooked and edges are lightly browned. Fold in half with a spatula, slide onto a plate, and serve immediately with veggies and dipping sauce.
Note: you’ll be in the kitchen for a while with this; we usually have two or three pans going at once to feed a big crowd.