If you think the French influence on culinary traditions in Vietnam stops at banh mi (i.e. a French baguette spread with pâté and filled with Vietnamese ingredients,) here’s one more fusion dish to keep on your radar. Banh xeo is a Vietnamese twist on French crêpes, but don’t go looking for any Nutella now. This is a decadent meal and a favorite dish of many locals.
What is Banh Xeo?
Banh xeo is a crêpe made from rice flour and coconut milk colored with turmeric and packed with a standard filling of mung bean paste, shell-on prawns, bean sprouts, and slices of boiled pork. The batter gets evenly spread across a large piping hot wok with a generous amount of oil, creating a crispy exterior that is folded in half when fully cooked. The result is a thin and savory pancake.
You’ll hear banh xeo long before you see it. That’s because when the batter hits the pan, it crackles in a loudly audible way, alerting its existence to a hungry customer. Banh xeo, which literally translates into “sizzling cake,” is a sensorial experience across the board. From the hissing noise as it fries to the brazen canary yellow batter, the scent of a luscious banh xeo divulges the greatness that is about to hit your taste buds. And it’s important to mention that banh xeo is Vietnamese finger food. That’s right, you’ll be wrapping up these slices in an array of herbs and dipping them into nuoc cham, sweetened fish sauce. Prepare to get your hands dirty!
Banh xeo, which literally translates into “sizzling cake,” is a sensorial experience across the board.
Where To Find Banh Xeo in Vietnam
Banh xeo is eaten all over Vietnam, but it is believed to have been a creation of the Central Vietnamese during the Tay Son era. It is said that the locals had grown so fond of crêpes that they would opt for banh xeo twice a month in lieu of their usual diet of rice. The inspiration for the recipe is largely attributed to the French, but some speculate that the recipe is a direct descendent of a crispy pancake in Hue called banh khoai, or that the dish evolved from the South Indian dish known as masala dosa, introduced by the Cham culture centuries ago.
Whatever the backstory behind these rice pancakes are, one thing is for sure: the recipe has countlessly been reinterpreted all across Vietnam to cater to the palates of each region. The central variation is much smaller than what you’ll find in Saigon, minus the coconut milk in the batter, and is approximately the size of a small saucer. Instead of mung beans, you’ll see local produce like fennel, green banana, and star fruit. Sometimes, the batter is spruced with chicken powder to make it extra relishing.
In the Binh Dinh and Quang Nam provinces of the central region, locals wrap their banh xeo in moistened rice paper while the south’s oversized banh xeos are encased in a stock of leafy greens. Closer to the coastline, you’ll see seafood instead of pork and deep in the heart of the Mekong, it is said that julienned palm fruit and shredded coconut are the vegetables of choice.
The Best Banh Xeo in Saigon
Banh Xeo 46A is Saigon’s most popular banh xeo pitstop, but Long proved that there is something better! In District 5, Saigon’s very own China Town, there exists Banh Xeo Ngoc Son. In Vietnam, the restaurants are ranked according to quality. At the top of the pyramid is a nha hang, an air-conditioned, high-end retreat; then comes the quan, a non air-conditioned, tiny stand-alone facility; and at the bottom rung are the street vendors wielding their mobile carts and creating pop-up stands.
Banh Xeo Ngoc Son is an upper level quan with multi-stories and a large staff. The space is short of one wall, boasting a doorless storefront with an open air cooking station set in place of where the door should be. These kinds of restaurants are common sights in Vietnam, a functional aspect that not only helps draw in more visitors because of the transparency, but also to aid in ventilating the eatery. This spot serves up the goliath of all banh xeos, with a portion so big, you could easily feed a family of four with one portion. That is, if the family is willing to share with one another…
Overseas Vietnamese count banh xeo as the first meal they’ll eat when getting off the plane and will make a beeline to this spot for a proper homecoming. The clientele are predominantly families; rarely were there any solo diners. If you can’t make it out to District 5, here are more off the grid banh xeo joints and a recipe to try and recreate at home!
How To Eat Banh Xeo
While waiting for your banh xeo, squeeze some lime into the nuoc cham fish sauce. This will be your dipping sauce. After the banh xeo arrives on your table, take your chopsticks and quarter off sections of the banh xeo. It’s very soft so it should rip apart easily but the most efficient way to cut it is when one person holds the banh xeo down with a chopstick while the other scissors it with his or her set of chopsticks.
The most notable part of the meal are the basket of herbs. The herbs will be the wrapper of your banh xeo. Using the lettuce leaf as base, add the mustard leaf next, then layer in on all the remaining herbs like Thai basil and perilla. There’s also Vietnamese fish mint in the batch, a herb that has a wonderously bizzare fishy taste. After you have your makeshift veggie vessel, plop a piece of the banh xeo on top and roll it up like a mini spring roll. Dip the roll into the nuoc cham and enjoy! Repeat this method until your plate is empty.
Our Advice for Eating Banh Xeo
Banh xeo is a meal meant to be shared. Do not try to tackle this beast all by yourself because everything from the slicing to the wrapping is best experienced when done in a group. You need a crowd around you to keep to pace your tempo or else you will be stuffing your face nonstop and chances are, someone will be rolling you all the way back to Christina’s. The spot also sells a number of other goodies but try them after you’ve finished your banh xeo so you don’t to spoil your appetite. Let us know what you think in the comments after you’ve had a go at this delicious dish!
Dish’s name: Banh Xeo
Price: ~40.000 – 110.000 VND
Opening time: From 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Address: 103 Ngo Quyen Street, Ward 11, District 5
More on Saigon Street Food series: Saigon Street Food: Cambodian Sweet Soup (Che Campuchia)