My earliest memories of anything relating to Vietnam are from movies about the Vietnam War. In my imagination, I visualized a war torn countryside with ravaged and charred jungles and ruined makeshift underground bunkers. In my younger years, I never would have thought of Vietnam as a lovely place to visit. My only thought of Vietnam was as a very sad place.
When I was in high school, some friends took me to a Vietnamese restaurant. It was located in a strip mall. It didn't look like anything special from the outside. There was a big glass door with a sign above it, which read, "Vinh". I now know this means "honor" in English. As we sat down a "hot pot" was brought over to our table. The server plugged the wok into the wall and it began bubbling up. Inside the wok there were vegetables, garlic and chicken. Soon, we all dished out some into our bowls to eat. Wow! I couldn't believe my taste buds. What looked like a simple vegetable soup turned out to be a medley of flavors. The broth possessed a depth of unexpected tastes. I absolutely loved this soup.
I went on to have the fried garlic catfish. The fish fell off of the bone in crispy garlic filled flakes and melted into my mouth. Every time I returned to Vinh, I ordered exactly the same thing. I didn't dare risk anything less delicious.
Banh Xeo — savory Vietnamese crepes.
Vietnamese cuisine combines fresh ingredients with minimal use of oil and a heavy reliance on herbs and vegetables. Some have ranked Vietnamese cuisine as the healthiest in the world. There are many vegetarian dishes as this area is strongly influenced by Buddhist values. When meat is used in Vietnamese food, it is usually as a condiment instead of a main course.
Even in my teenage years after visiting Vinh, I never wanted to visit Vietnam. Then, in law school, I my perception changed. A friend went there on a vacation. I saw his photos when he returned. I was shocked to see that Vietnam is beautiful, lush, green, vibrant and coastal. I saw the most gorgeous trees, flowers, hotels, boats and beaches. Vietnam was an amazing, relaxing, enjoyable place to vacation. I really wanted to go there.
Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to get there yet. Since then, Vietnam flew out of my imagination. This is, until last week when I was watching the Travel Channel. This is Anthony Bourdain's last season of "No Reservations." I am recording every episode and this has been the best season yet. Last weekend, he was in Vietnam. All of my dreams of going there resurfaced. Bourdain reminded me of the beautiful countryside, the amazingly glorious scenic beaches, the kind people and the tantalizing food that I saw in my friend's photos. Anthony Bourdain sampled all sorts of delicacies. What stood out for me was the Vietnamese crepes or as they call them, "Banh Xeo" (pronounced Ban Say-O).
Time: 20 minutes
2 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 cup sauted mixed vegetables (kale, mushrooms, celery, onion, cabbage, etc)
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups coconut milk
1 cup rice flour
4 scallions, chopped
cup soy sauce
juice of half lemon
teaspoon rice vinegar
teaspoon chili sauce (optional)
1 cup cilantro, chopped
In a wok, saut mixed vegetables and garlic for ten minutes, salt and pepper, and set aside. In a large bowl, combine and whisk together coconut milk, rice flour, sugar, turmeric, salt and scallions. In a large skillet bring 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Ladle in some batter and heat. Once the crepe is almost cooked through, add in the veggies. Carefully fold the crepe over. It will easily fall apart. I used two spatulas to do this in order to keep it all together. Top with fresh cilantro. In a small bowl, mix together soy sauce, sugar, lemon juice, vinegar and chili sauce. Spoon a bit of this over the top of the crepe and enjoy.
In our family, we still have Sunday Crepe Day. I make crepes and fill them with Nutella for everyone to enjoy. The only problem is that I don't like these very much. I'm not a huge fan of Nutella. Occasionally, I fill mine with some vegetables. Usually, I make myself something else completely. So, when I saw how these Vietnamese crepes were made with scallions, garlic, vegetables, and cilantro, I was intrigued. I also liked that these are made right outside on the streets by street vendors for everyone to enjoy while they walked through the town. I wish they made these here.
So, today, I went for it and made a batch of these. I sauted some vegetables and whisked up the batter. It was all so simple. Turmeric is used in the batter, which makes the crepes turn yellow. So, the crepes end up looking like an omelet but no eggs are used. Then, I made a dipping sauce out of soy sauce, rice vinegar, lemon and a touch of sugar. I would have added in chili sauce but Daphne wouldn't have eaten it. Once it was finished, we dug in. We soon learned that it wasn't really a dipping sauce because it was easier to drizzle a bit of the sauce on top. These crepes were so delicious. The combination of the sweet crepe by using the coconut milk and the garlic and vegetables inside was amazing. Then, the accent of the salty soy sauce was the clincher. This really tied all of the flavors together beautifully. I will definitely be making these more often. Now, I am back on my travel to Vietnam kick. I hope to one day write my food column from there with more hints on how to make their delicious healthy and fresh cuisine.