My Time in Vietnam

I recently ate dinner at Mai House, an up-market Vietnamese restaurant in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City. Michael Huynh, the chef, shows a sure hand at reinterpreting Southeast Asian street food.

He cooks with a straightforwardness that retains the gut-punch appeal of the original form. But, in a bow to the realities of local expectations and prejudices, he packages his creations with the panache that a woman of Saigon -- trundling the street with a yoke of eats balanced on her shoulders, stopping here and there to dish a bowl of pho, a banana leaf-wrapped pork-secreted pyramid of bao -- would never muster.

Huynh is an assured cook. He serves cuttlefish (think super-sized squid), cut into batons, rolled in rice flour, spiced with salt and pepper, and fried to a greaseless bounce. Dipped in an herbal sauce that owes a sweet debt to kiwi, they sing. And his sticky rice, jumbled with coins of sausage, is a fitting homage to pavement culture.

Huynh is also expert at clay pot chicken. His rendition of the southern Vietnamese specialty -- thatched with shredded stalks of lemongrass and swirled with egg -- could claim a seat on most any Saigonese table. Of course, it’s spiked with nuoc mam, the fermented fish sauce, a ubiquitous national condiment that manages to serve the three threefold purposes that Worcestershire, Hines, and Tabasco do in American cookery.

Dinner at Mai House proved to be great prep work for travel to Vietnam: Just two weeks after I walked out Huynh’s door, I landed in Saigon. (Although this city of eight million has been officially known as Ho Chi Minh City since the 1970’s, everyone – locals and visitors alike -- still refers to it as Saigon.) Wandering the streets, sampling curbside eats, and dinner at Mai House served as a guide.

It wasn’t as though I ate cuttlefish that was a carbon copy of Hoyn’s, but, while at his table, I did gain the confidence to wander the streets of Saigon. (Negotiating the torrent of motorbikes that courses the streets and defies traffic laws was another matter altogether.)

(N.B.: A good so-called "ethnic" restaurant sets the groundwork for foreign travel. It functions as a shorthand ethnography of a people, a place, and a culture. Dinner, in essence serves as a primer for departure.)

In Saigon, I closely studied the flavors of Vietnam. I came to love the sticky rice that purposefully clumps together instead of standing apart. I came to know the perfume of anise-scented basil. I pledged, again, my devotion to the pleasant cloy of cilantro.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the crush I developed on one particular Saigon dish: banh xeo, which translates loosely from the Vietnamese as something like sizzling crepe.

As served in Saigon, banh xeo is a turmeric-perfumed rice flour and coconut milk crepe-like-thing, cooked -- on a charcoal-fired street stove in a beat-to-hell skillet popping with oil -- until the lacy edges shade brown. Folded over a hillock of bean sprouts, a scattering of pork and shrimp, and a toss of pleasantly mealy mung beans, the crepe comes with a nest of greens and herbs.

Find the right street vendor and she’ll show you how to chopstick the half-moon crepe into pieces, wrap it in a young mustard green leaf, tuck in a bit of herbs, and dunk the whole in a nuoc cham, the sauce made of fermented fish, garlic, and chili. That’s how I ate my crepe at a shed of a restaurant on a Saigon side street, pulling on a bottle of locally-brewed Tiger beer, watching the fry cook turn out crepe after perfect crepe on the most rudimentary of stoves.

Although I couldn’t cadge a recipe from that street vendor – or any of the other half-dozen banh xeo vendors I fell for while in Saigon -- I was lucky to be traveling, at least part of the time, in the company of Mai Pham, the dean of Vietnamese-American chefs and owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, California.

One evening, under Mai’s tutelage, relying upon her Americanized version of the traditional dish, I attempted my own banh xeo. While I won’t claim it turned out as good as the street side crepes I came to love in Saigon, I will tell you that it proved a fitting bookend to that dinner at Mai House, where, sad to say, they aren’t as fluent in sizzling crepes. 

Bahn Xeo 
Makes 4 crepes

I toured Vietnam in the company of Viking and the CIA. Not that one: the Culinary Institute of America. It’s an annual trip, led by Mai Pham, author of Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table, from which this recipe was adapted.

2 cups rice flour
1 cup coconut milk
2 cups water
3 stalks green onion, sliced thin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons turmeric powder

4-6 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, sliced thin
1/2 pound roast pork or chicken
12 small to medium shrimp, peeled and halved lengthwise
4 cups bean sprouts
2 cups white mushrooms, sliced thin

Whisk the batter ingredients together and set aside. In a nonstick frying pan, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat. Add a tablespoon of the onions. Stir for 30 seconds and add 6 shrimp halves, cooking 10-15 seconds more. 

Whisk the batter again and ladle 2/3 cup into the pan, turning the ladle as you go and tilting the pan so that the batter covers the entire surface. Reduce the heat to medium.

Place 1 cup bean sprouts, 1/4 of the chicken, and 1/2 cup mushrooms on one side of the crepe, closer to the center of the crepe than the edge. Reduce the heat to low and cover the crepe with a lid.

Cook for 2 minutes. Remove lid, add a tablespoon of oil under the edge of the crepe, and cook 2 more minutes until fringes sizzle and crisp.  Using a spatula, fold the crepe in two and slide onto a plate. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

Tear the crepe into bite-sized pieces, wrap in lettuce leaves with mint, and dip into nuoc cham.

Nuoc Cham 
1 garlic clove, sliced thin
1 Thai bird pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground chili paste
1/4 cup fish sauce
2/3 cup hot water
2 tablespoons lime juice, fresh squeezed
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons shredded carrot

Finely mince garlic, chili paste, and chili. In a bowl, combine with remaining ingredients and stir until the sugar dissolves.

(Originally published, in a slightly different form, in U.S. Airways Magazine)