This week I am challenging myself to eat only Vietnamese food for every meal. I am posting daily, detailing my food intake and also occasionally providing you with recipes so you can have a go at some of these simple dishes yourselves. It’s not going to be easy for me; it’s taking me out of my comfort zone as I’ve become used to mainly eating western style food but I’m ready to take this journey over the next 7 days and hopefully inspire some of you to try one of the world’s healthiest cuisines, along the way.
I just couldn’t help myself. It was too alluring. It was also during a 30 minute break between classes, so I knew I had the time for it. I walked up to the lady in the conical hat and discreetly asked for one. I sat down. The air was hot and with no wind, I was perspiring heavily. Or was it just the excitement of what was to come. Set before me, a minute later, was a beautiful bowl of Hu Tieu. It really was a stunning sight to behold. I hardly wanted to ruin it by actually eating it. In the end it all got a bit too much for me and I scoffed it right down.
Hu Tieu is a noodle soup with Chinese origins. It is also found in Cambodia and Thailand with the names of Kuy Teav and Kuai Tiao respectively. I wrote about this dish back in March after realising that I loved it probably as much as pho. Here’s a little of what I wrote then:
‘A southern-Chinese inspired soup, Hu Tieu has a clear broth and contains pork and shrimp. Whenever I’ve eaten Hu Tieu it has been made with thin egg noodles as opposed to the clear white vermicelli noodles you find in pho but you can sometimes find a mix of these two noodles in one bowl. It’s not as strong flavour-wise as pho but it packs a punch when I add the heaps of chili I drop in.’
To read more, visit my blog post ‘Forget Pho, Have a Hu Tieu‘.
After last night’s somewhat painful realisation that we’d been eating soya and tofu instead of pork and chicken, we decided that lunch today was going to be a meat feast of Com Tam. Well, a grilled chicken thigh each with some rice and spinach. I wasn’t that hungry after having breakfast a few hours earlier so I gave half of it to my cat Khoe, who liked it very much indeed.
I told Gareth what I intended to eat for dinner tonight, so he hastily made plans to pick up a footlong Subway instead. We’d kind of eaten this dish before and weren’t so fussed, but in my research for this week I found that we’d eaten it all wrong. Banh Xeo, which literally means ‘Sizzling Cake’, is a Vietnamese fried pancake. It is probably one of the most authentic dishes I’ve come across here. Beef was brought to Vietnam by the French, so any dish containing beef, including Pho Bo, actually has a French element to it.
Banh Xeo is made from rice, flour, coconut milk and turmeric and stuffed with shrimp, pork, onions and bean sprouts and is panfried and folded in half.
A mechanics by day, a Banh Xeo eatery by night. I walk past this place so often that it just seemed rude not to include it in this week’s meals. I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be understood when ‘explaining’ what I wanted because last time we’d eaten from here we’d only bought one measly pancake, took it home and ate it dipped in chili sauce. That’s so not how you eat Banh Xeo. I was glad when the lady who runs the place brought a tray over to my table and placed down a plate of five hot pancakes, a large plate of mint, basil and lettuce leaves, and a small plate of transparent rice paper with a small bowl of sweet and sour fish sauce on top.
I had no bloody clue where to start.
The lady could see I was struggling so she showed me what to do. First I had to pick up one of the sheets of rice paper, lay down a bed of herbs, add on top a large piece of pancake and then roll it all into a big cigar shape. She then asked if I wanted chili added to the fish sauce, you know me, of course I did. I then had to dip the end of the roll into the sauce (this softened the rice paper and added further flavour) and ultimately enjoy.
Oddly, in that moment, I felt emotional. I’d been in Vietnam for a year and this was the first time I’d pushed myself, by myself, to try something really different. I was being stirred at by others sat around me but for the first time I liked it. Before now a large chasm existed between me and the Vietnamese in my mind and it was mostly my fault. I had chosen, through my lifestyle, to integrate with them on the most minimal of levels. I don’t need to be accepted by them, but they deserve to be accepted by me. I was beginning to understand who they where.
The Banh Xeo was scrumptious; fresh, crunchy and tangy, probably the best meal I’ve had all week.
I’ve been promising you a recipe and I think Banh Xeo is a great one to pass on.
Recipe for Banh Xeo – This recipe was taken from a Vietnamese cookbook I bought here, so if the directions sound a little bit odd, it is because they are authentic. I’ve also had to change measurements from cups to grams and ml’s but if you’re anything like me you’ll just guess the proportions anyway. Makes 14 to 15 pancakes and serves 6 people
200g of rice soaked overnight in 500ml of water
150g sifted wheat flour
125ml of coconut milk
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/2 tablespoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon salt
125g chopped spring onion
Ingredients to add to the flour mixture
150g chicken breast cut into small pieces
150g medium sized uncooked prawns
1 thinly sliced large onion
250g bean sprouts
Herbs and condiments to serve with the pancakes
2 large heads of lettuce
a small bowl of fish sauce seasoned with lemon juice, sugar and chilies
To prepare the flour mixture: Wash the rice with cold water 3 times, or until clear. Add 100ml of water with the rice and put through a blender. Add the coconut milk to the rice mixture and do one last quick blend. Add the rice and coconut mixture to a large bowl, beat the egg then add it, with the flour, gradually to the bowl. Mix until it is a smooth paste. Add the sugar, salt, turmeric and 500ml of water. Strain through a fine strainer then add the chopped spring onion. The flour mixture is ready for cooking.
Usually, special hot pans are used to make the pancakes, as you can see in the picture above, but you can use a saucepan instead.
For one pancake: Heat the pan to a medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of cooking oil. Saute 1 tablespoon of the onion, chicken and shrimp for 5 minutes. Add 120ml of the flour mixture to the saucepan and immediately swish it around so as to make a thin cake. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, then add a handful of bean sprouts. Fold the pancake and cook covered for another five minutes, making sure to cook both sides, then remove from the pan.
If you can’t get your hands on any rice paper, then roll you Banh Xeo in a large lettuce leaf instead.
I hope you will give this simple recipe a go. If anyone does then please leave a comment below, I’d love to know what you think.