Bánh Xèo - Crispy Vietnamese Crêpe

I'm of the opinion that folks who don't like to try anything new might also have a slight kitchen phobia. Pots, pans and and cooking utensils are eyeballed suspiciously and rarely to be trusted. It's merely a theory that rolls around in my head. I have no way of proving it.

I have a lot of cookbooks (a LOT) and while I adore them all, there are truthfully very few I'm able to pick up and cook a recipe from flawlessly. At least the first time. This has little to do with the credibility of the cookbook author/chef or my abilities as a home cook (though let's be honest, the more we do, the better we become), and more to do with uncontrollable variables like ingredients, whether or not I have the recommended cooking equipment, and the fact that cooking times vary from one kitchen stove to the next.

It's a fact we can't dismiss but we shouldn't let it discourage us from trying new things.

Take this bánh xèo recipe that appeared in my inbox the other day from my good friends at Lucky Peach magazine. I've enjoyed this Vietnamese street food many times from authentic cooks and I've always wanted to make it at home. The recipe featured in Lucky Peach is from Jimmy Tu, chef-owner of Bunker in NY. This guy is clearly no slouch. People go out of their way to get to Bunker. If he's sharing his bánh xèo recipe, I'm going to try it.

Jimmy suggests a specific piece of kitchen equipment: a carbon steel pan. Lighter than a cast iron can but with all of the heat-retaining qualities, this is a pan you need in your home kitchen arsenal. If you've enjoyed an authentic bánh xèo you know they're wonderfully crispy. You can use a non-stick pan but you're not going to get that crispy bottom and without a crispy bottom, well, you might as well just make an omelette. Season your carbon steel pan and use it often enough and it will develop a slick non-stick layer as well as produce the sear you're after.

*Here's a great article on seasoning your carbon steel pan by the awesome folks at Serious Eats.

In addition to using the  right pan for the job, using high heat and lots of oil are key for this recipe as well. No worries on the oil, it's drained off before you serve the crêpe. Don't try to skimp and use less - the oil is your vehicle to crispy goodness and is also helpful if your pan isn't, ahem, seasoned very well.

For me, cooking with a carbon steel pan and using super high heat produce fear in me. At least it used to produce fear into me until I got over messing it up and trying again. If you nail this on your first try, congratulations. Your second crêpe will probably really suck and you'll feel defeated and foolish. Join the freakin' club, man. We embrace you! Make a third for your neighbor and you'll get back on track, but call him before you start cooking because these puppies cook up fast and are meant to be eaten immediately when you slide them out of the pan. Don't expect to wrap this up and take it next door. After dousing the crêpe in the salty, sour, spicy nuoc cham, it's going to lose some of that crispiness in a hurry. 

I love this recipe because the ingredients are simple, fresh, and pristine. The rice flour gets crispy on the bottom while the egg you drizzle onto the setting crêpe keeps it moist inside. The crêpe is traditionally served wrapped in fresh lettuce and herbs, but I like to tuck all of my veg inside. Jimmy adds bacon, shrimp and spring onions to his rice flour batter but this time I was sans bacon. Sniff.

Jimmy also recommends starting the crêpe off with one spoonful of batter, swirled around in the pan until it coats it, then adds two more spoonfuls of batter, but I found this did not work for me. What size of spoon he used I have no way of knowing, but my spoonful didn't halfway cover the pan so I simply poured all of the batter in slowly and let it gently creep across the pan. Then I poked some holes in the crêpe and rotated the pan back and forth to let the uncooked batter settle into the holes. I'm presenting the directions straight from Jimmy, so try his way first if you feel comfortable with it, but don't be afraid to switch it up to make it work for you. The keys here are the PAN, the OIL, and the HEAT. 

Let's get this crêpe party started:

BÁNH XÈO

Recipe by Jimmy Tu of Bunker, courtesy of Lucky Peach

Makes 1 crêpe, serves 1 to 2

Ingredients 

  • 1/4 C Thai rice flour
  • 1 small scallion, very thinly sliced
  • + pinch ground turmeric
  • + pinch fine sea salt
  • 1/4 C water
  • + vegetable oil
  • 1 strip thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2" pieces
  • 5 small (26/30-count) shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1/2 C bean sprouts
  • 8 green and red lettuce leaves
  • 4 shiso leaves (optional but so good if you can find them)
  • + fresh mint, cilantro, basil, and dill sprigs

For Nuoc Cham:

  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1/4 red Thai bird's eye chili
  • 1/4 C sugar
  • 1/4 C fish sauce
  • 1 T fresh lime juice
  • 1 C water

Make the nuoc cham dipping sauce: 

  1. Pound the garlic and chili in a large mortar with a pestle until pasty.

  2. Whisk in the sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and 1 C water until the sugar dissolves. Transfer to a serving bowl for dipping.

Make the crêpes: It's important to have all of the ingredients for the crêpe ready to go before you begin, because these cook up very fast.

  1. Whisk the flour together with the scallion, turmeric, salt, and 1⁄4 C cold water in a bowl until completely smooth. Set aside.

  2. Heat a well-seasoned 9″ carbon steel skillet over high heat until smoking hot. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan generously and swirl to lightly coat the sides too. Add the bacon and shrimp and cook, stirring and tossing, until the shrimp start to curl but before they become completely opaque, about 1 minute.

  3. Whisk the batter again to mix in any flour that’s settled on the bottom and ladle a spoonful into the pan. Swirl the pan to coat the bottom and an inch or so up the sides with a thin layer of the batter. Repeat two more times. Let the batter set, about 30 seconds.

  4. Drizzle the egg over the crêpe and swirl the pan to evenly coat the crêpe with egg. The crêpe should have released from the sides of the pan; squirt oil between the crêpe edges and the pan (this is aided by having your oil in a squirt bottle). Gently shake the pan to keep everything moving. Poke holes in the crêpe with a fork or spoon to keep it from bubbling up—you want a flat crêpe. Oil should be sputtering at the edges of the crêpe. If it isn’t, add more.

  5. Cook the crepe, oiling and shaking until the egg has set on top and the bottom of the crêpe is dark brown around the edges and in speckles on the bottom. Pile the bean sprouts on one half and fold the other half over with a spatula. Hold the folded omelet against one side of the pan and tilt the oil out the other side into a heat-safe bowl. Discard.

  6. Lift the omelet out of the pan with the spatula and immediately serve with the lettuce and shiso leaves, herbs, and nuoc cham. Tear off a piece of omelet with a bunch of bean sprouts and tuck it into a lettuce leaf with a shiso leaf. Pluck a few fresh herb leaves and stuff them in there, too, then roll it up and dip into the nuoc cham. Eat. Repeat.