Food Talk

Banh xeo: Stuffed cheela, Vietnamese style

Many layers of intriguing tastes and textures make banh xeo, the crispy rice pancake, a must try

Banh xeo: Stuffed cheela, Vietnamese style

Pushpesh Pant

India has had millennia-old relations with countries in Southeast Asia. From Myanmar and Vietnam to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia, the region was referred to in the past as ‘Greater India’. Keeping political correctness and nationalistic sensibilities of these neighboursin mind, this usage is no longer acceptable.

There are many commonalities between Indian and Vietnamese cuisines. Vietnam falls in the zone where Chinese and Indian influences intersect. This seems to have left a deep imprint on the culinary philosophy of the land. Like Indians and Chinese, the Vietnamese subscribe to the belief that different food ingredients have different inherent properties, which are aggravated by the changing cycle of seasons. Great emphasis is laid on seasonally appropriate diets. The precepts of ayurveda and the concept of Yin and Yang have been imbibed by the Vietnamese.

An interesting feature is the emphasis on a balanced meal. The protein derived from fish, poultry or pigs is never served in large portions but as a part of a dish that includes lots of fruits, vegetables and leafy greens. The starch is provided by rice or noodles. Just as it is difficult to lump all Indian delicacies under the label ‘Indian’, in Vietnam, too, the food reflects great regional diversity. The Mekong river connects Vietnam with Cambodia and Laos and the ports opening out to the east and south provide access to the Indonesian archipelago and the Philippines. There are many dishes that remind one of dimsums, wraps and skewered sauté. But the flavours are distinctly different from Thai or Malay cooking. Cultural affinities and fraternal feelings continue to be easily discernible. We were reminded of this during a recent visit to Cho, a restaurant specialising in Vietnamese delicacies in Mehrauli, New Delhi. The man who presides over the kitchen is gifted chef Vaibhav Bhargava, who has trained for months in Vietnam and earned quite a reputation for his innovative pan-Asian presentations. We enjoyed almost everything we sampled on the tasting menu but what stole our heart was banh xeo. Translated in vernacular, it is a rice batter cheela stuffed with a filling created with a mélange of mushrooms, tofu/paneer, sprouts, and if you are a non-vegetarian, why not prawns?

A pinch of turmeric gives it a pleasing tint and adds a subtle exotic flavour. To many Indian diners, this is a lookalike of a cheela that used to be popular not so long ago in the rainy season. What makes it exotic is the many layers of intriguing tastes and textures — coconut milk, soy sauce, raw mangoes and tamarind. Not everything is a must, you can pick and choose and improvise, but do try this once when the showers descend.


Banh xeo

Ingredients

  • batter
  • Rice flour 1 cup
  • Salt 1/4 tsp
  • Turmeric powder 1/4 tsp
  • Coconut milk 1/4 cup
  • Water (ice cold) 1 cup
  • the filling
  • Onion (chopped fine) 1 small
  • Mushrooms (sliced fine) 100g
  • Tofu/paneer bite-size cubes 100g
  • Moong/bean sprouts 1/2 cup
  • Red/yelow bell pepper (diced) 1/2
  • Black pepper 1/2 tsp
  • Sesame oil 1/4 cup
  • Salt to taste
  • dipping sauce
  • Soy sauce 3 tbsp
  • Tamarind pulp 1 tbsp
  • Raw mango (grated) 1/4 cup
  • Lime juice 2 tbsp
  • Water 4 tbsp
  • Sugar 1 tbsp
  • Garlic (chopped fine) 1 clove
  • Ginger (scrapped, minced) 1-inch piece

Method

  • Mix the ingredients for the batter in a large bowl and set it aside overnight, or for at least two hours.
  • Rinse the beans well and blanche in hot water for a minute. Refresh immediately by dipping the beans in cold water. Chop coarsely.
  • In a medium-large skillet, stir-fry the tofu or paneer until golden brown, followed by the rest of the vegetables and sprouts. Cook for four to six minutes on medium heat. When ingredients tenderise, set it aside for filling.
  • In a fresh broad pan, heat 1-2 tsp of oil. Add the chopped onions.
  • Pour in some batter and quickly tilt and rotate the pan so a thin layer of batter spreads evenly and flakes off at the pan’s edges.
  • Lower the heat to medium-low. Add some filling and cover with a lid for about two minutes.
  • Meanwhile, ground and mix all ingredients of the dipping sauce to prepare a thick dip with salsa-like consistency. Keep aside.
  • Now check if the batter is slightly cooked and transparent around the edges. Remove the lid and decrease heat to low. Allow the crêpe to turn crisp for 3-4 minutes. You may add a little oil around the edges.
  • After the crepe turns golden on the underside, fold it in half and transfer to a plate. Garnish with fresh iceberg lettuce, mint, cilantro or choice of greens. Serve with the dipping sauce.

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