Acting on a rainy season craving, Vi Pham goes in search of her favourite banh xeo. Photos by Siân Kavanagh
The rainy season in Saigon urges me to crave something hot and not too soupy which can still be consumed with fresh veggies. Banh xeo is the perfect choice. As an iconic street food throughout Vietnam, banh xeo get its name from the sizzling sound of the batter when it hits the hot pan. It’s loved for its taste, simplicity, crunch and mix of ingredients.
Chewing on every roll of smoking fried batter, pork and beansprouts wrapped in salad and herbs, I wonder what secrets lie behind a dish that is so fragile because of its soft texture but yet always impresses people when they try it for the first time.
Tour de Banh Xeo
Originating in central Vietnam, banh xeo has travelled throughout the country and become localised.
In the north, because of the changing seasons and the cold, people make the batter with only rice flour and turmeric powder. No egg and coconut milk are included as in other regions. They even add in some beer to preserve the crunchiness of the banh xeo when it gets cold.
In northern and southern Vietnam, banh xeo is fried in big pans; banh xeo in central regions is much smaller, a shape that fits in your two hands. Despite the size, the quality of the filling doesn’t change. The nuoc cham or dipping sauce used to eat with banh xeo also differs. Instead of using fish sauce, in Danang they prefer using soya sauce, pork liver and sesame.
In the south, the banh xeo is huge. Literally. However, the most significant difference lies in the way it is fried. Thanks to the large pans, banh xeo in Saigon, Can Tho or Vinh Long is crunchy on the edge but soft and juicy on the inside, embracing every slice of river shrimp and pork. The most southern element in the recipe is the coconut. The cooks here not only use coconut milk to enhance the richness of the batter, but also add coconut water to the dipping sauce, giving it a natural sweetness.
And the Best Banh Xeo Goes To…
As a child of Saigon who has absorbed the culture and cuisine since birth, of course I am going to vote for the southern recipe, especially the Saigon version. There is no feeling like tearing out the crunchy edge of the fried banh xeo with my hands and feeling it melt at every bite.
Despite my bias, the originality of each version of this much loved dish means that every region could be said to serve up the best banh xeo. The way chefs around the country make such creative use of local ingredients is the reason for the differences in taste.
A significant part of Vietnamese’s culinary culture, whenever anyone lists Vietnam’s top dishes, banh xeo will always appear. It won’t hit the top three, but to me, any list without this dish just isn’t credible.
Get Your Fix
If you ever have the chance to travel through Vietnam, to Hanoi, Hue and Saigon, don’t forget to roll yourself some banh xeo. Check out these places in Saigon if you’re not travelling any time soon:
Banh Xeo K35
K35 G Street, Q2
Price: VND20,000 to VND40,000
Banh Xeo 46A
46A Dinh Cong Trang, Q1
Price: VND20,000 to VND55,000
Banh Xeo Co Anh
17 Cay Tram, Go Vap
Price: VND10,000 to VND30,000