By Kathryn Meeker, Dahlia Park
Imagine a little girl standing on her front porch in Da Nang, Vietnam. Her mother is at work, an accomplished tailor by trade. Her father is inside tending the other children. Rain is pouring down, and this thought comes to the little girl’s mind: “Time to crush up some rice and make banh xeo.”
While mixes for these savory Vietnamese crepes do exist, this little girl’s aunt always said it’s better to soak uncooked rice and make it from scratch. Stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, it’s a fried dish considered ideal for cool, wet weather.
A brief introduction for those who didn’t grow up in sometimes-rainy Da Nang: Banh xeo means “sizzling cake”, for the distinctive sound the batter makes when it hits the hot oil in the pan. While many assume that banh xeo descends from the French crepe, the dish’s origins actually predate the arrival of French colonizers. More similar to an Indian dosa, banh xeo contains mung beans, coconut milk, and turmeric, all evidence of more Indian influence than French.
Fast forward around twenty years, and that little girl is grown up, cooking in her own kitchen in the Highlands. Thuan Stevens followed a long road from her porch in Da Nang to a gleaming white and gray kitchen just up the hill from Central Park. Keeping her language, traditions, and family recipes alive along the way has allowed her to keep a strong connection to her homeland.
During the Vietnam War, Thuan’s father became a colonel in the South Vietnamese Army, fighting on the side of the Americans. He was captured and detained as a prisoner of war for five years. Because of his skills as a chef, his living conditions and diet were slightly better than other prisoners, though that isn’t saying much. After his release he met and married Thuan’s mother. During the late 80’s and early 90’s Vietnamese veterans of the war were offered the opportunity to move to and bring their family to the United States. Thuan’s family settled in Philadelphia, where her mother found work and her father continued to stay at home. There he taught the children to cook while their mother imbued them with a sense of confidence, grace, and style.
After meeting her husband in college, Thuan’s young family moved here for his job. With three young children and one more on the way, Thuan keeps herself busy as a mother, photographer and blogger. She helped establish the Highlands Playgroup, and has even run a preschool from her home. No matter what, two or three days a week, authentic Vietnamese food is on the menu for dinner. Doubtless her own little ones will stand on the porch watching the rain this fall and think, “Time to crush up some rice and make banh xeo.”
Crepe batter with regular jasmine rice
1 cup raw jasmine or regular long-grain rice
2 tablespoons firmly packed leftover cooked rice
1 tablespoon firmly packed ground steamed mung bean*
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 cup coconut milk, canned or freshly made*
1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons water
1 scallion, white and green parts, thinly sliced
Put the raw rice in a bowl and add water to cover by 1 inch. Let soak for 3 to 4 hours. Drain rice and transfer to a blender. Add remaining ingredients, except scallion. Blend until smooth and add scallion before cooking.
Crepe Batter with Rice flour
Rice flour — 1 cup
Sugar — 1/2 teaspoon
Salt — 1/2 teaspoon
Turmeric — 1/4 teaspoon
Coconut milk — 1 cup
Water — about 1/2 cup
Or you could buy the packaged batter mix and follow the instructions on the bag.
3/4 pound ground pork or thinly sliced boneless pork shoulder
1/2 pound shrimp
1 can (15 ounces) whole or broken straw mushroom or cabbage
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 cups bean sprouts
1/2 cup oil
(Dipping sauce recipes vary widely. Here’s one to try.)
3 Thai bird chilies or 1 serrano chili, or to taste
1 clove garlic, sliced
3 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup warm water
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
5 tablespoons fish sauce
Vegetable Garnish Plate
2 heads leaf lettuce or Bibb lettuce
1 bunch mint leaves
1 bunch Thai basil
Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium-high flame and add shallots or scallions and garlic. Sauté for 1-2 minutes without browning.
Add the shrimp and sauté for another 3-4 minutes until the shrimp is cooked through. Add the fish sauce and salt to season. Remove shrimp to a bowl and set aside.
Wipe out the sauté pan and reheat over medium flame. Add a small amount of oil. Stir the crepe batter well and pour 1/2 cup batter into the saute pan. Swirl the pan to coat the bottom.
Lay 3 or 4 of the cooked shrimp over one half of the crepe and then sprinkle a small handful of sprouts over the shrimp. When the middle of the crepe looks cooked through and the edges of the crepe begin to brown, fold the crepe over to cover the filling and side onto a plate.
Serve with lettuce or wrap up with spring rolls wraps.