These crepes are yellow and folded over like an omelet, but don’t contain eggs; they’re crisp like the bottom of a paella, but no rice grains are visible. Bánh xèo rice crepes are in a class of their own. The southern Viet charmers are named for the sizzling sound they make while cooking and typically contain pork, shrimp, mushroom, and bean sprouts. Snipped or broken into pieces and eaten as lettuce-and-herb wraps with nước chấm dipping sauce, the crepes hit all pleasure centers.
For years, I soaked and ground raw rice or used its equivalent, Thai rice flour, to make velvety batters. Supermarket white rice flour yielded gritty results until I tried making the batter with super-hot water. Bingo! The rice starch softened enough to yield finer textured crepes. Compared to the traditional ones, these are crunchier and heartier—and wonderfully delicious in their own right. Weigh the flour for precision, but play with the filling. Use sliced red cabbage when beans sprouts are unavailable or look sad. See the Notes for a meatless option.
Cook the crepes in a nonstick or well-seasoned carbon-steel skillet (cast iron will make it hard to swirl the batter). Fry/steam/fry is the general approach, so be ready to adjust the heat along the way. If available, use a burner with about 12,000 BTUs to ensure sufficient heat. Set up a DIY crepe station for a fun party.
Vietnamese Food Any Day
by Andrea Nguyen
To make the batter In a medium bowl, whisk together the rice flour, cornstarch, salt, and turmeric. Whisk in the water and then the coconut milk. Let the yellow batter sit, uncovered, for 30 to 45 minutes, to thicken to the consistency of half-and-half (it will be slightly gritty from the flour). Whisk in more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, to thin out the batter, if needed (when I have to add water, it’s usually no more than 1 tablespoon). The batter may be made up to 2 days ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator; bring to room temperature before using.
To prep the filling In order to cook efficiently with less mess, pre-portion the filling components. Divide the pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and onion onto six small pieces of parchment paper, creating a pile of goodies for each crepe. Sprinkle each portion with a pinch of salt. Set on a tray or baking sheet and keep near the stove with the batter and bean sprouts.
Place a large cooling rack on a baking sheet for the cooked crepes. Preheat the oven to Warm or to its lowest setting.
To fry the crepes In a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, warm 2 to 3 teaspoons of the canola oil. When the oil is very hot and shimmering, add a portion of filling and stir-fry for 45 seconds, breaking up the meat with a spatula until it no longer looks raw; the mushrooms will probably look moist. Make a line down the middle to divide the ingredients into two half-circles; this will ensure the crepe later folds over easily. Lower the heat slightly if you feel things are out of control; you can always turn it up later!
Stir the batter vigorously with a ladle until there is no more drag, sludge, or separation. Scoop up about ⅓ cup batter and pour into the skillet, distributing it around the filling. Pick up the skillet and swirl the batter to coat the bottom (and maybe run up the sides); the batter should set around the filling and form a handsome round. If needed, add more batter to quickly fill in empty spots. (If the batter didn’t sizzle and bubble upon contact, the skillet wasn’t hot enough. If it did bubble but was hard to swirl around, lower the heat or thin out the batter with water, or do both. Making these crepes is akin to making pancakes: adjust as you go.)
Pile about 3/4 cup bean sprouts on one side of the skillet, lower the heat slightly, and cover the pan with a lid to steam; if it’s a tight fit, slide the lid so it’s ajar to allow a bit of venting. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the bean sprouts soften slightly, then uncover the pan and drizzle 1 to 2 teaspoons oil around the rim. Lower the heat again (I’m typically at medium at this point) to gently fry and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. When the crepe is golden brown at the edge, use a spatula to peek underneath. Is it mostly crisp from the rim to the center? If not, fry a little longer; and if needed, add oil and raise the heat. Be patient. When you’re satisfied, slide a spatula under one side and lift to fold the crepe over. No big deal if it breaks in the center.
Slide the finished crepe onto the prepared rack and hold in the oven, or if serving immediately, transfer to a dinner plate. Rewarm the skillet over medium-high heat and repeat the whole process to make another five crepes. If at any time the batter feels too thick, add water, 1 teaspoon at a time, to thin it out. If you have two medium skillets, use both like a pro to speed things up.
Serve the crepes with the lettuce, herbs, cilantro, and dipping sauce. Pass around one or two pairs of kitchen scissors to cut the crepes into manageable pieces. To eat, tear a piece of lettuce roughly the size of your palm, place a piece of the crepe on it, and add a few herb leaves. Fold into a bundle and dunk into the dipping sauce.
For meatless crepes, replace the meat and shrimp with 4 ounces of thinly sliced Sriracha Tofu made with extra-firm tofu; or, crumble 8 ounces tempeh and season with 1 teaspoon soy sauce and ¼ teaspoon salt. Increase the number of mushroom to six. Serve with vegetarian or regular Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce.
Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
Makes about 1 cup
Takes 10 minutes
I’ve been making Vietnam’s ubiquitous nước chấm for decades but still prepare it in stages to dial in the flavor. Much like making a vinaigrette, taste, taste, taste. Follow this recipe, then create your own formula. With the optional additions, choose chile for heat, garlic for pungency, and/or carrot for texture.
In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the sugar (or 3 tablespoons of the maple syrup), 3 tablespoons of the lime juice, and the water. Taste the limeade and, if needed, add the remaining 1½ teaspoons sugar (or 1 tablespoon maple syrup) and/or 1 tablespoon lime juice; dilute with water if you go too far. If there’s an unpleasant tart-bitter edge, add the vinegar to fix the flavor.
Add the fish sauce to the bowl; how much you use depends on the brand and your own taste. Aim for a bold, forward finish that’s a little gutsy. (Keep in mind that this sauce typically dresses dishes that include unsalted ingredients such as lettuce and herbs, which will need an extra flavor lift.) If desired, add the chiles, garlic, and/or carrot. (Offer the chiles on the side if diners are sensitive to their heat.) The sauce can sit at room temperature for up to 8 hours until serving.
Set the sauce at the table so diners may help themselves, or portion it out in small bowls in advance of serving.
Lime juice dulls and can turn the sauce slightly bitter when left overnight. For a make-ahead nước chấm, combine the sugar, water, and fish sauce to create a base, then refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. (Prep a double batch if you use it a lot.) To finish, add the lime juice, vinegar (if using), and any desired add-ins.
For a vegetarian nước chấm, stir together a rounded 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, 3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar (or 4 to 5 tablespoons maple syrup), and 3 tablespoons lime juice. Taste and add sweetener or up to 1 teaspoon unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar to round out. Add 2/3 cup lukewarm water and 1½ teaspoons soy sauce and finish with any add-ins before serving.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new, and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. You have the power to keep us cooking, sharing these stories, and helping you in the kitchen.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table.
Reprinted with permission from Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors by Andrea Nguyen, copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Andrea Nguyen is an author, freelance writer and cooking teacher. She is the author of several cookbooks, including Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (a finalist for a James Beard award for Best Asian Cookbook and winner of two IACP award nominations), Asian Dumplings and Asian Tofu. Her writing has appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit and Saveur, where she serves a contributing editor.