Vietnamese Crepes, In Three Acts

I: WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Any dish that allows you to stuff delicious ingredients inside of more food always proves to be popular. Take sandwiches, tacos, raviolis, or terducken. The Vietnamese crepe, or banh xeo, is the Southeast Asian variation on that theme. It’s construction is a thin, crispy shell, made out of rice flour and coconut milk stuffed with savory delights like shrimp and mushrooms, as well as Vietnamese staples like fresh bean sprouts, herbs, and lettuce. To that we add the glue of our mother country: nuoc mam, a sweet, vinagery and sometimes spicy fish sauce that you’ve probably had if you’ve eaten spring rolls or imperial rolls at a Vietnamese restaurant.

Because of it’s “stuff in stuff” nature, its been compared to other dishes. People have dubbed it “Vietnamese Pancake” (due to its circular shape), “Vietnamese Taco” (because its folded in half). Once or twice I’ve even seen it listed on menus as “Vietnamese Pizza,” since you can customize each one to your culinary liking. I’m happy with the name “Vietnamese crepe” because it has a similar texture and technique to the French. But whatever you want to call it – a Southeastern pizza, taco, or pancake – a Vietnamese crepe by any other name is still as delicious.

II: HAPPY FEET

If there’s a dinner to be cooked, Vietnamese crepes are my go-to dish. They’re made-to-order, so I feel like a line cook, hurriedly cooking up crepes for my family members. It’s a multi-step process, starting out with sautéing onions, then adding shrimp till it turns slightly pink. Next comes the batter, which needs to be ladled out as I tilt and swirl the pan until so the batter  thinly coats the pan. My grandma (who taught me how to make this dish) has a trick of allowing a thin layer of batter come up the side of the pan so that the edge becomes paper thin, creating a crispy seal and delicate embellishment. It reminds me of how the French require macarons to have “feet” – the ruffled edge around the cookie – otherwise it’s not technically considered a macaron. At our house, we have hold our crepes to the same standard – my grandma grumbles every time I mess it up.

III: EATING WITH FIVE SENSES

As we wait impatiently for the batter to cook up, we add mung beans to the slightly wet center, and as the batter develops, in goes the enoki mushrooms and bean sprouts. After a few minutes, we fold it in half and serve it with “the spread,” bowls of fresh lettuce and herbs to eat along with the crepe, along with individual dishes of fish sauce.

A few weeks ago I enjoyed this dish with my mother and grandma, as well as my uncle, aunt and two cousins who recently emigrated from Vietnam. Casually perched around our dining room table, we were consumed with piecing together our crepes – reaching over for a sprig of mint, or adding chili sauce to our nuoc mam.

During our meal, my uncle began waxing poetic about Vietnamese crepes. While he wrapped his crepe in a red leaf lettuce, he exclaimed how they’re a great example of how the Vietnamese eat with all their senses. “We start with the eyes,” he explained, “The colors are so vibrant: there’s the bright yellow crepe, speckled with green onions. Folded inside is pink shrimp, white sprouts and mushrooms with an outer layer of  fresh green lettuce. Lastly, we dip into a golden sauce with pieces of red Thai chili.” He added, “That’s a colorful dish, as any.”

He described the rest of the sensory experience: enticing aromas of cooked shrimp and caramelized onions, nestled on top of the sultry scent of coconut milk batter. Crepes require hands-on construction, he noted, as he added basil and mint to the crepe. And I love the way my uncle described the sounds. “You can hear the food in your head as you’re chewing it,” he said. “The crunch of the crepe, lettuce, the bean sprouts, and everything else.” When he concluded his speech, he dunked his crepe into the fish sauce and consumed it with a satisfied look on his face, for making his point and for finishing a delicious crepe.

Once it’s in your mouth – oh man. It’s not just a hot piece of savory food. It’s a perfectly balanced bite of crunchy bean sprouts, cool lettuce, aromatic herbs, and delicate shrimp. Finished with the unmistakable twang of the fish sauce, the combination of flavors represents what it means to be at home: cooking with my grandma while she looks over my shoulder to make sure I’m doing it right and eating dinner with my family, while we talk about our American lives and Vietnamese traditions. And the crepes engage all my senses – the smell, taste, sound – but it most of all it captures my heart, because it means I get to enjoy homemade food with the people I love most.

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