Vietnam’s crepe-like pancake, banh xeo (bánh xèo) is a delightful, messy, savory culinary experience. From Saigon pancake in the south to the smaller rounds served up in Vietnam’s central and northern regions—the rice-flour wrapper tucked into a heap of herbs and leaves is one of the best ways for traveler in Vietnam to “eat your greens”. Inside the folded wrapper, yummy bits of seafood, pork, and crunchy mung bean sprouts flavor each bite.
Tom and I first tasted banh xeo while traveling in Southeast Asia, and ate the pancakes at every opportunity, as street food and in restaurants. Imagine our delight to find banh xeo in northern Portugal, on the weekly menu at Porto Express – Bistrorante Vietnamita, just a metro ride across town in Porto!
Banh xeo in Porto, Portugal
In Porto, chef Loan Kim Nguyen cooks the food of her childhood in Vietnam’s south. She learned the bright flavors of the region’s home cooking from her mother, and still keeps the emphasis on fresh ingredients, albeit with fewer herbs than in the Saigon region. Loan and her husband Jochen-Manuel Rehberg opened Porto Express in July 2021, bringing a touch of Southeast Asia to Porto’s Bonfim neighborhood. The restaurant was recently profiled in Evasões, a Jornal do Noticia supplement, in its issue on Bonfim.
Porto Express offers a number of dishes that are staples of the Vietnamese home kitchen, from pho to a wonderful vermicelli salad with grilled pork. I like them all. However, when banh xeo appeared as a plate of the day, I had an immediate pang of nostalgia, as I’ve not seen the dish elsewhere hereabouts.
The terrace kitchen of Magnolia in Phnom Penh, Cambodia serves up a great Saigon pancake. The restaurant offers options for dining in a garden, on a balcony or in air-conditioned splendor. It quickly became my go-to Vietnamese restaurant in Cambodia’s capital city.
Banh xeo from Phnom Penh to Saigon
For Tom and me, our first Vietnamese pancake experience was actually in Cambodia, from the terrace kitchen of Magnolia in Phnom Penh. Thanks to banh xeo in the restaurant garden, Magnolia quickly became a favorite during our months in Cambodia’s capital city.
A few weeks after discovering banh xeo we traveled to Vietnam. As soon as we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, we went in search of authentic Saigon pancake. It wasn’t long before we happened upon two cooks in a windowed kitchen pouring, flipping and folding a steady procession of the sizzling crepes.
The menu choices were many and included veg-only options, but we wanted to try the most traditional: Saigon-style, with slivers of pork belly and shrimp. First, a basket of mixed leaves (mint, Vietnamese perilla, fish mint, and coriander) was delivered to our table along with glasses of cooling limeade, frosty drinks we very much appreciated after our steamy tramp across town.
When the pancakes arrived, it was time to create our personal luncheon masterpieces. We pulled each neatly folded crepe into scraggly bits with chopsticks, tussled them onto a palm’s worth of carefully selected and layered leaves, and rolled everything into cigar-like “sandwiches”. Dipped into nuoc cham (nước chấm) aka Vietnamese dipping sauce, our lunch screamed flavor, crunch, and sloppy goodness.
Banh xeo, Hoi An style
Hoi An is a food lover’s Mecca in Vietnam’s coastal midsection, and I was fortunate to spend two days cooking with renowned restaurateur and cookbook author Trinh Diem Vy, or “Miss Vy” as she is known across Vietnam. To my great delight, I had a chance to make banh xeo under her expert eye. We learned that Hoi An banh xeo takes on a smaller, heftier form than we had tasted in the south.
The pork is still there, and the shrimp, but Miss Vy used a skillet instead of a wok and final presentation was slightly different. Wrapped in rice paper, Hoi An banh xeo is fine finger food, without some of the slosh associated with its southern relative. In Miss Vy’s version, each cooked pancake coddles thin slices of green banana, along with star fruit and some herbs.
The dish is a winter season favorite in Hoi An, dipped in peanut or sweet and sour sauce with the added kick of bird chilies. Very different from Saigon style, but oh so yummy!
Banh xeo: “fresh and fried, sweet and sour, soft and crunchy”
If banh xeo is crepe or a pancake, where are the eggs? In fact, the similarities between banh xeo and a western-style crepe begin and end with shape and mouth feel. The Vietnamese specialty gets its name from the sound the batter makes when poured into a hot pan, its vibrant yellow color from turmeric, and its slightly sour crunch from coconut milk and fermented crispy rice flour (or in Hoi An, a batter of coconut cream, ground rice, and mung beans).
Authentic banh xeo is gluten-free and as street food or in a restaurant, comes with a wealth of whatever greenery the market has to offer on the day. From stinky fish mint to various forms of basil to long coriander, the leaves impart a piquant burst of ‘fresh’ to every bite. Each of the many varieties of fresh herbs important to Vietnamese cuisine adds something special to a dish and a meal.
Taste Vietnam: the Morning Glory Cookbook cites banh xeo for its harmonious balance of taste and textures. This dish from a country of great food is “fresh and fried, sweet and sour, soft and crunchy”, all at once.
Thanks to Miss Vy for my time in her Hoi An kitchen and to Loan for reviving one of my most potent food memories!