Phuong doesn’t use many recipes. She cooks from memory and observation. She also believes that food should taste good to the person preparing the food, which means something a little different for everyone. What follows is my rendering of a memorable cooking lesson with her.
½ pound pork belly, sliced into 1 inch square pieces ¼ inch thick
½ pound shrimp, peeled and sliced in half at the body, but held together at the tail
½ pound raw mixed seafood, cut into bite-size pieces
one bunch green onions, green parts sliced, white parts split in half and pounded flat
1 pound bean sprouts
one 36-ounce package Vietnamese pizza flour — banh xeo — available at Vietnamese markets
½ teaspoon salt
Open one bag of banh xeo flour. (One 36-ounce package contains two bags.) In a large bowl, combine the flour with one package of tumeric (also in the package) and 3 to 4 cups of water and the sliced green onions and the salt. Stir to mix. The batter should be about the thickness of milk. Adjust by adding more water or flour as needed.
Heat one tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large, non-stick saute pan* over high heat. When the oil and pan are hot, add two or three shrimp, two or three pieces of pork, and a few pieces of seafood. Move the pieces around the pan with chopsticks to promote cooking on all sides to move the oil underneath the food. Swirl the oil around the bottom perimeter of the pan. When the meat is cooked (1 to 2 minutes), add a generous handful of bean sprouts and a few of the white onion parts. After about 30 seconds, ladle about 1/2 cup of the batter into the hot pan, taking care to spread it over the entire bottom surface.
Swirl the pan so that the liquid spreads evenly. Cover the pan with a lid and turn the heat down a little. After a couple minutes, check the cake. It is done when the edges curl away from the pan and the cake is set in the middle. Give it another minute or two, or more, if needed. When it is cooked through, gently fold the banh xeo in half. The bottom should have some crisp brown color, but no burning. Lift the pancake onto a serving plate. Repeat procedure with remaining ingredients. Serve with sauce. The sauce is key.
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
2–3 small red chiles about two inches long and thinner than a pencil
2 heaping tablespoons granulated sugar
½ lime, peeled
1⁄3 cup low-sodium soy sauce
warm water as needed
In a small bowl or mortar, place three peeled cloves of garlic and two or three small red chiles, depending on your taste and audience. Add two heaping tablespoons of sugar. Pound the garlic, chiles, and sugar with a pestle or a heavy, flat-ended kitchen tool. (We used the rounded handle of a cleaver.) Smash the ingredients until you form a paste. Remove the peel and pith from the lime. Add half the lime flesh to the sauce bowl. Pound again. If you like your sauce a little more sour, add more lime juice. Add soy sauce and a bit of water. Taste the sauce and add more of whatever ingredient you like. When it tastes good to you, pour a bit of sauce into individual dishes. Dip bite-size pieces of banh xeo into the sauce and watch your friends swoon.
Variation: Instead of soy sauce, use fish sauce. For this variation, you will need to warm 1/2 cup or so of fish sauce with about 1/2 cup of water and 5 heaping tablespoons of sugar. Boil these ingredients in a pan on the stove so that the sugar dissolves. Add this mixture to pounded garlic, chiles, and lime (be careful not to splash!). Stir, taste, and adjust to your liking.