French Vietnamese

“Heaven punishes, heaven reprimands. But heaven does none of this when people are eating.” — Vietnamese proverb

We ordered lunch yesterday from Pho 9N9 restaurant – about a mile or two from my work in RTP.  I ordered a favorite of mine from their menu, Spicy Lemongrass Tofu (B10).  The tofu is served with rice vermicelli and some veggies, and is usually very spicy.  For something different I also ordered Banh Mi, which is a Vietnamese sub sandwich.  I’ve had Banh Mi previously at Dalat restaurant in Raleigh, but had never ordered it from Pho 9N9.  Interestingly, Banh Mi is offered on Pho 9N9’s appetizer menu for only $3, rather than as a full-sized sandwich.  It was a small 6″ baguette filled with savory grilled pork and some marinated carrots and cabbage.

Banh Mi is one of those interesting hybrid creations that resulted from French influences in Vietnam.  The French occupied Vietnam for about a century from the mid-1800’s to the mid-1900’s.  So ingredients like baguette and coffee have become fully integrated into Vietnamese daily cuisine.  In reading through the cookbooks that I’m using this month, there are a few other common Vietnamese dishes with a similar French twist.  Those are various types of Pâté, usually made with pork or egg rather than the traditional liver; and Banh Xeo, crepes made with rice flour and coconut milk and filled with shrimp, mung bean sprouts and other veggies.

Note: after writing this post, I was reading another source that attributed Banh Xeo to the South Indian influence, due to its similarity with Dosas of that cuisine.  Either way, Banh Xeo is delicious!

I decided to try Banh Xeo for dinner tonight, since crepes are a favorite of mine for a quick evening meal.  This was a delicious variation on my usual crepes – with the coconut milk and bean sprouts providing a unique Asian flavor.  Interestingly, this crepe batter contains no eggs so I found that it tears more easily than a French crepe.  This first batch definitely wasn’t perfect, I especially had trouble deciding how thick to pour the crepe and when to turn it.  However, the end result made a very enjoyable dinner.  I’m beginning to understand that the fresh herbs and nuoc cham dipping sauce make just about anything taste fresh and delicious!

I also made a Ginger Pineapple salad with fresh pineapple chunks, fresh minced ginger root, some salt, some sugar, cilantro and minced red pepper. It might sound a little strange if you’re not used to eating salted fruit, but the salt is actually a nice counterpoint to very sweet fruit.  If you don’t believe me, try a little salt on your next slice of watermelon or cantaloupe. OK – the cilantro and red pepper sounds a little weird too – but altogether it’s a very good combination, believe me!

Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Crepes)
¾ c. rice flour
¼ c. coconut milk
1 c. water
pinch of salt
pinch of curry
½ tsp. sugar

¼ c. thinly sliced onion
1 c. mung bean sprouts
¼ lb. small shrimp, halved
¼ lb. pork or chicken (optional – I left it out this time)
1 c. mushrooms, cooked briefly
+Nuoc cham dipping sauce and fresh herbs on the side

Whisk the batter ingredients together and let it rest while you cook the filling ingredients.  Stir-fry the onion with the pork or chicken on high heat for a few minutes, then add shrimp until they are pink, about 2 minutes.  Add mushrooms and bean sprouts and cook for another minute or so.  Remove this stir fry mixture from the pan and set aside.

Heat a non-stick skillet to medium high and pour about 1/2 c. batter while swirling the pan to cover the bottom surface (amount of batter will depend on the size of your pan and how big you want the crepes to be).  As the crepe starts to pull away from the pan and the edges are getting crisp, place some of the filling on one half of the crepe and fold the other half over to cover the filling.  Slide the folded crepe onto a plate and serve with herbs (cilantro, mint, basil) and nuoc cham dipping sauce.  Oil the pan lightly between each crepe.


One response to “French Vietnamese

  1. Great article! You’re right about the origins of Banh xeo. It predates French colonialism in Viet Nam and is a cousin of the Indian Dosa.

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