Here’s a dish that I often overlook. It seems so insubstantial, more of a snack than a meal, yet every time I eat these crisp, thin rice flour crepes filled with prawns, pork, mung beans and bean sprouts, I walk away sated. They are Bánh xèo (bang say-oh), often called ‘Vietnamese Pancakes’, and are commonly served alongside nem lui, smoky and fragrant grilled minced pork skewers.
A huge platter of mixed greens including coriander, mint, perilla, culantro, fish mint, rice paddy herb lettuce and mustard greens to name a few, pickles, rice paper and nuoc cham for dipping arrives, often before the ordering is done. Shortly after, the main event lands. In this case, three small shrimp-heavy pancakes make one portion, the nem lui are shaped on disposable chopsticks and the dipping sauce has peanuts. Further south you might get just one large pancake, or the nem lui might be wrapped around lemongrass skewers, or may not even be offered at all. There may be no rice paper, but it’s a feature here in Hanoi.
The lacy crepes are made from a rice flour with turmeric powder lending it’s yellow tinge. The ‘xèo’ is said to be from the sizzling sound of the batter hitting the hot oil.
Check out how banh xeo is made and eaten(and see the ‘xèo’ sizzle) in this video made by my talented husband:
I’m writing this at my dining table, fans blasting against another 30°+ Hanoi night. I probably should be doing work, but I just can’t get my head into it.
There’s loads of other things that I probably should be doing, like throwing away half of the clothes in my closet, or watching this, or organising whatever it is that’s festering in the junk corner behind the door. Because after living in this apartment for 2.5 years, we’re moving in a fortnight. Luckily, we’re just going one floor up – this building is a gem in Hanoi, lovely apartments (with ovens!), quiet, insulated, with a landlord who offers rice wine, but understands when you don’t want to drink it.
Pizza with cheese, roasted tomatoes and basil
I used to make pizza for a living. While I was at university I worked in a popular local pizza and gelato joint and, as is often the case with such things, I rarely had any desire to eat pizza. And when I did, I had a pizza oven at my disposal. So there was no need to figure out how to make it at home.
Then there were those years spent in Korea where I lost my taste for pizza, after enduring one too many sweet potato, mustard and seafood monstrosities (Korean pizza is a weird thing). Back in Hanoi, there’s good pizza available for a price.
Ice cream made without proper churning is often a grainy, icy disappointment. As is most ice cream bought in Hanoi, unfortunately. Here’s the solution: no-churn frozen yogurt, made using homemade yogurt and super-ripe fruit, mango in this case.
Power outages happen occasionally in my Hanoi neighbourhood, but the poor quality of the frozen goods here seems to be a direct result of disdain for generally accepted freezer conventions. Things are changing for the better, but in my experience there’s a high probability that the ice block you choose in the mini-mart freezer lucky dip will have partially melted and refrozen at least once. Just last week we parked at a favourite lunch time spot next to a bike with a bag full of Celano’s hanging from the hook in direct sunlight. The owner was inside getting take-away, not a quick stop as every meal is freshly prepared, while the poor ice creams disappeared into oblivion.
One of the most beautiful things about living in Hanoi is the sudden appearance of unfamiliar produce in markets and in the baskets of roaming bicycle vendors. Even though I’ve lived here for so long, some things that I’ve never seen, or have seen and not noticed before, still pop up every now and then.
Just last week, our post-gym coconut spot was selling these unusual fruit. Shiny, fibrous orbs about the size of a large eggplant topped with overlapping leaves. We added one to our fruit haul and then watched as the seller starts slicing through one with a mini-machete for a different customer. He removed a few slices off the bottom to reveal 3 oval shaped translucent pods.
Later, at home, I fell into a google hole of research and have only just found my way out. This is the fruit of the Borassus Flabellifer also known as the Palmyra or Sugar Palm.
Apparently when ripe the white section can turn yellow/orange and is eaten as well. In fact every part of the tree can be used for different applications. They’re common in India and South East Asia, and it is the national tree of Cambodia.
We found cutting through the course outer layers more difficult than the demonstration indicated. When we finally got into it, the 3 seed sockets were filled with some bland liquid and a slightly bitter and quite firm jelly, easily removed with a spoon. These are similar to the palm seeds (attap chee from the nipa palm) that feature in iced desserts across South East Asia, just not nearly as texturally pleasant or delicious.
I have to admit that I didn’t get past a few tiny taste tests. Even a sprinkling of sugar did nothing to improve the flavour. It was bland with unpalatable undertones. The very limited amount of jelly in the fruit was therefore a blessing in disguise.
Would I spend 40,000vnd (~$2) on a random piece of produce again? Most definitely!
Would I buy this particular fruit again? Not likely. Not unless I had some palm fruit advice and a good recipe. I’d also ask the fruit vendor to slice it open.