Banh xeo To Hien Thanh – one version of Hue’s original banh xeo made by a Hanoian who has deep love with the imperial city. Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by Francis Roux. This article was published on Word Hanoi Issue March 2013.
Once the imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue is still renowned for its royal cuisine. So much so that a large number of Vietnamese including many Hanoians have the firmly-held belief that it is the best of the country. Take banh xeo or fried pancake as an example. This dish may be familiar to many of us and people may encounter different versions of banh xeo as it is prepared differently throughout the country. However, to many Hanoians, the Hue version of banh xeo is the one that they prefer most. And while the exact origin of this dish remains a question, many think this Vietnamese fried pancake has its roots in Central Vietnam.
Hanoians who are Hue culinary fans tend to seek eateries opened by Hue natives as to them, only people from the former imperial city can deliver the true spirit of Hue cuisine, both in terms of presentation and taste. Among the various Hue eateries in Hanoi, Banh Xeo Bun Thit Nuong 3 To Hien Thanh is famous for its almost ‘exact’ translation of the essence of Hue.
Ingredients, Ingredients, Ingredients
According to the owner at 3A To Hien Thanh, all versions of banh xeo consist of three components: the fried pancake, the dipping sauce and the wrappers. However, each style differs taste-wise down to very small variations in the ingredients.
“The simple step of choosing wrapping vegetables can make the taste of banh xeo Hue different from other [versions],” she explains. “I, like Hue locals do, prefer to add mint leaves, star fruit or green mango to normal vegetables that are used in the north. The fresh mint and sour taste from the mango helps reduce the fatty richness of banh xeo.”
“Even though it looks easy, making the crispy crepe filled with beansprouts, shrimp and pork is not simple,” she continues. “While preparing the batter, you cannot pour all of the water into the rice flour, instead, you have to gradually mix in the flour with the liquid. When achieving a sticky and smooth, condensed liquid, the batter is ready for a crispy crepe.
“And then, while the batter is on the frying pan, the fire should be stable and the batter should be only be a thin layer on to the pan. You should not also add too much oil as it can make the crepe less crispy and brown.”
Instead of using pork, as is often the case in Hanoi and Saigon, this lady chooses grilled meat the way Hue people do. She also orders a majority of ingredients from Hue every week so as to maintain the consistent flavour of her dish.
The Dipping Sauce
“To me, the dipping sauce is the soul of this dish,” she explains.
The typical sauce used in Hue is a harmony of tastes: spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet, which are obtained by the combination of 10 different ingredients. The secret to this delicious cake (banh xeo is called banh khoai in Hue which literally means delicious cake) is the thickened sauce with peanut butter. Many Hanoians love banh xeo Hue because of this sauce. However, while Hue locals prefer a spicy, sweeter taste and a thicker sauce, Hanoians prefer it to be thinner, less spicy and definitely less sweet.
“I have had to make a slight change to the sauce by adding in a watery element,” she explains. “Some minor adjustments have also been made to balance and achieve a Hanoi-friendly translation of the Hue taste.”
The dipping sauce is also used for other dishes, bun thit nuong, nem lui and pho cuon, dishes that add a nice touch of variety to this already attractive eatery. Even more unusual is that the proprietor was not even born in Hue.
“Many people express their surprise when they know that I was born in Vinh Phuc,” she laughs. “People often think that only Hue locals can make Hue-like food. My belief is that when you love food enough, you can make it even better than the original.”