I learned this past weekend that Super Bowl Sunday ranks second only to Thanksgiving Day in terms of calories consumed by Americans. Being totally oblivious, I forgot about the impending snack down when I ventured out for a few groceries Saturday afternoon. A few groceries turned into a few hours fighting traffic, dodging grocery carts, and colliding with manic shoppers diving after the last bag of Doritos. There are a lot of sarcastic things I could write about football’s big day here, but let’s just say it’s not really my thing. Ask John, and he’ll tell you I shoveled a plate of wings in my face and then promptly fell asleep for the 2nd half.
Incase anyone else out there is in need of a fresh hiatus between last weekend’s heartburn fest and next week’s chocolate pig out (hello, Valentine’s day), I present you with a Southeast Asian dinnertime escape. No plane tickets or sunscreen required, just a quick trip to your local Asian supermarket and a little kitchen finesse.
Though they are readily available in most Vietnamese restaurants here, I first tasted Vietnamese pancakes (also known as Saigon Crepes or Banh Xeo) in Vietnam. We were staying in Hoi An, a picturesque beach town about 60 miles outside of the City of Hue. We went to the Hoi An’s central market – a bustling congregation of vendors that’s party grocery store and part food court – in search of Cau Lau, a hearty noodle and pork dish topped with crispy fried dough bits, rich homemade gravy, lime, greens, and fresh herbs. Though the Cau Lau was certainly delicious, the stall we returned to again and again, sold Banh Xeo. Crispy yellow crepes, wrapped around bits of stir fried pork, fresh shrimp in their shell, bean spouts, greens, and fresh herbs, the Hoi An (and Hue) style version of this dish is eaten out of hand with a thick fermented bean sauce for dipping.
More than two years later, those pancakes are still on my mind. Saturday afternoon, after the aforementioned grocery misadventure, I set about making my very own Vietnamese pancakes. The recipe here is adapted from Mai Pham’s The Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table, and though very similar to the pancakes we ate in Hoi An, this version is more in the style of Ho Chi Minh City, served with nuoc cham for dipping rather than the thicker fermented bean sauce. The batter comes together easily – a quick combination of rice flour, coconut milk, water, and turmeric, dotted with sliced scallions – but I ran into trouble cooking the crepes. First round, they stuck, fell apart, and ended up mounded on my lunch plate: deliciously disastrous. Round two, I abandoned the recipe’s instructions to cook the crepes in a 12-14 inch skillet, instead opting of a more manageable 8 inch skillet, and stir-fried the filling in a separate pan. This method yielded much more cooperative albeit less authentic pancakes.
Along with the pancakes, I also included a recipe for traditional Thai coconut sticky rice with fresh fruit below. The Southeast Asian dessert for a reason, you’ll be surprised how easy this dish is to recreate at home. Subtly sweet and coconut scented, for me the pleasure of this dessert is textural – sticky, chewy, toothsome rice and cool yielding fruit. A great way to finish any spicy meal, leftovers make a delicious breakfast or lunchbox snack.
Saigon Style Vietnamese Pancakes
Adapted from Mai Pham’s Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table
Serves 4 to 6
For the Salad
- 1 head butter lettuce (or any soft mild lettuce), washed and leaves separated
- ½ large English cucumber, thinly sliced
- Assorted fresh herbs – basil, mint, cilantro and/or thai basil
For the Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Cham)
- 2 thai bird chilies, sliced into thin rings – this makes a pleasantly spicy sauce. Increase or decrease according to your taste.
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 3 tbsp fresh lime juice
- 5 tbsp fish sauce
- 2/3 cup warm water
- 2 tbsp finely julienned carrots for garnish
For the Pancakes
- 2 cups rice flour
- 1 ½ tsp ground turmeric
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ cup coconut milk
- 2 1/3 cups water
- 3 scallions, thinly sliced
- Vegetable oil for cooking
For the Filling
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 small or ½ large yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 4 oz pork shoulder or chicken breast, pounded thin and sliced in 1 inch strips
- 8 oz raw small shrimp, heads removed in or out of their shells – New Englanders: Maine Shrimp are in season now, insanely sweet, and perfect here.
- 3 cups bean sprouts
Begin by preparing the salad and the nuoc cham – both items can be kept in the refrigerator several hours or overnight. For the salad, simple arrange all ingredients on a large platter and cover with a damp paper towel until ready to serve. For the nuoc cham, combine 2/3 of the chili (reserving 1/3 for garnish), the garlic, and the sugar in a mortar and pestle and pound into a rough paste. Transfer to a small bowl and add the lime juice, fish sauce, and warm water. Mix and taste for balance, adding more lime juice (acidity), fish sauce (salt), or sugar (sweetness) as needed. Keep in mind the rest of the dish is essentially unseasoned, so you want your sauce to have a good kick. Garnish with the carrots and the reserved chili. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
Next, mix the pancake batter. Combine the rice flour, tumeric, and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Slowly drizzle in the water, whisking well as you pour. Stir in the coconut milk and the scallions. The batter should be thin and brightly yellow. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
Next, prepare the filling. When you’re ready to serve, preheat a wok or heavy bottomed sauté pan over high heat. Add 1 tbsp vegetable oil and the sliced onions. Stir fry 1 to 2 minutes until aromatic, then add the sliced pork or chicken along with a pinch of salt and stir fry 2-3 minutes or until the meat is browned and cooked through. Transfer to a platter and return the pan to the heat. Add another tbsp of oil along with the bean sprouts, shrimp, and another pinch of salt. Stir fry 2 minutes or until the bean sprouts are slightly wilted and the shrimp are cooked through. Transfer the shrimp and bean sprouts to the platter holding the onions and meat. Cover with aluminum foil and set this, your salad, and your nuoc cham on the table.
Assemble your friends and family and start cooking your pancakes. These are at their best freshly cooked, so get everyone involved in the process. Preheat an 8 or 9 inch skillet (preferably non-stick) over high heat with 1 tsp vegetable oil. If you have 2 small skillets, preheat both; it will make the process that much faster. Add 1/3 cup to ½ cup pancake batter and tilt the pan to coat. Cover the pan with a lid (doesn’t have to fit tightly – any pot lid or dinner plate will work) and cook 30 seconds to 1 minute until the pancake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove the lid and cook an additional 1 minute to crisp the crepe – peek under the sides of the crepe, it should be slightly browned. Transfer to a serving plate.
To eat the pancake, tear off a small piece, top with a little stir-fried meat and shrimp + some salad and herbs and dip in the nuoc cham. Alternatively, pile your crepe with toppings and sauce and enjoy with a knife and fork!
Thai Style Coconut Sticky Rice
Adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet
- 3 cups sticky rice (aka glutinous or sweet rice) soaked in warm water for 1 hour and then drained
- 2 cups coconut milk
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- Fresh sliced mango, pineapple, and/or papaya to serve
- Toasted sesame seeds to serve
Steam the Rice: Either use a bamboo style rice steamer set over plenty of boiling water, or make your own rice steamer using a large soup pot and a metal colander lined with cheesecloth. Fill the pot with a few inches of water (you don’t want the rice touching the water), place the rice in the colander, and cover with a tight fitting lid. Steam until the rice is translucent – 15-25 minutes. Check the pot periodically to make sure it hasn’t run out of water.
Meanwhile, prepare the coconut sauce: Combine the coconut milk, sugar, and salt in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Heat just until warmed through and the sugar has dissolved.
Once the rice is cooked, transfer to a mixing bowl and add 1 ¼ cups of the coconut sauce. Mix well and let the rice sit for 1 hour. Reserve the remaining coconut sauce for serving.
To serve: Scoop some rice into a bowl, top with plenty of fresh fruit, a few spoons of coconut sauce and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds. Keeps well refrigerated up to 1 week – bring the rice to room temperature before serving or steam it for a few minutes to reheat.