The irresistible allure of travel is conjured in many different ways. Some people travel to satisfy their thrill-seeking urges, others want to immerse themselves in new cultures and languages. Some simply want to relax in a faraway setting.
Travel has the power to satisfy countless cravings and desires, and although there’s definitely something in all of the above (and much more) that motivates me to travel, there’s one stand-out factor that invokes my wanderlust. Food.
Food is MY jam when it comes to travelling. I love the prospect of finding a local dish that I would potentially never discover outside of that village, town or city. Being taught how to cook these beloved local dishes by the people who cherish them, using ingredients and techniques native to that specific area. Visiting markets and being overwhelmed by their heady, intoxicating scents, unfamiliar languages and incongruous ingredients. Discovering THAT bottle of wine, and subsequently buying six bottles to take back to England to enjoy in the hopes of summoning that same experience. THIS is why I travel.
This insatiable lust for taste discoveries was intensified when we took six months out to travel in 2011. I spent those six months voraciously scouring every destination for its hidden foodie wonders, seeking out unfamiliar dishes and recipes that I could savour whilst away, as well as recreate back at home. It’s completely changed the way I travel now, and whether it’s a week’s holiday in Tuscany, a long weekend in Edinburgh or even a day out in London, food is always my prime motivation for exploring a location.
Of the many dishes we’ve encountered throughout our travels, I’ve found few more intriguing than bánh xèo. I discovered bánh xèo in Hội An, a city on the south central coast of Vietnam. A UNESCO world heritage site, Hội An is a curious, enchanting city of odd, but charming pairings. Dusty roads are lined with immaculately preserved ancient buildings daubed in warm shades of yellow, which house hundreds of unceremonious, identical tailor shops.
A sparkling stretch of impeccable sand kisses the balmy, aquamarine South China Sea, where stolen moments of relaxation are frequently interrupted by the constant bombardment of Vietnamese merchants, who relentlessly try to offload their fake Ray Bans and ‘lucky’ bracelets.
A labyrinth-esque market simultaneously entices and repulses, from the mysterious vegetables and herbs and the never-ending array of shellfish and seafood on display, to the live chicks cramped into tiny cages, heavily sedated live ducks that stare mournfully at their deceased friends on tables nearby, and skinned frogs which shockingly still seem to writhe in a pool of their own blood.
For all its eccentricities and flaws, Hội An completely bewitched me. A mesmeric talisman of my travels that I hold onto tight, it was the place that I really learned to love South East Asia, especially its cuisine. Some memories are vividly illuminated in technicolour, and one particular afternoon in Hội An spent learning how to make the enigmatic bánh xèo is definitely one of them.
As if it happened yesterday, I remember meeting our tutor, a resident of Hội An, and gathering an enthralling range of ingredients from the market before climbing aboard a boat which chugged along the Thu Bồn River. We passed long-tail boats navigated by fisherman bedecked in their conical hats, and wove past the uniformly arranged fishing nets, which lay ready to catch the next day’s bounty.
We eventually reached our cookery school which was situated on a farm that appeared to be marooned on an idyllic island, hidden beyond a patchwork of lush green vegetation.
Our cooking station itself was a shaded shack, overlooking a thirsty river bed that encircled the farm like a protective moat.
The arcadian scene set, it was time to cook. Using the ingredients that we’d freshly procured from the market, we were taught how to make a feast of Vietnamese classics like phở bắc (Hà Nội-style rice noodle soup) and gỏi cuốn (Vietnamese salad rolls). Everything tasted amazing, but by far the most memorable dish we learnt was my first encounter with the Vietnamese delicacy of bánh xèo.
Bánh xèo is, quite simply, the most magical pancake you will ever taste. A culmination of classic Vietnamese flavours, the pancake is made with coconut milk and rice flour, which forms a crispy pancake when fried along with spring onions and pork, shrimp or tofu. Stuffed full of fragrant herbs, rolled in rice paper and served with a citrus nước chấm sauce, my first experience of bánh xèo on that Hội An farm was nothing short of sensational.
It may be *slightly* different recreating this dish in the setting of a stuffy, mid-Summer’s kitchen in Leeds, and the finished product may not be as perfect as what I made under the tutelage of Vietnamese experts. But pouring over the crumpled recipe issued to me in Vietnam, assembling my exotic ingredients and immersing myself in the techniques taught to me on that Hội An farm, I was back there again. The power of food strikes again.
RECIPE: Bánh xèo with tofu (serves about 4 people)
For the rice batter
310g rice flour
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
180ml canned coconut milk
3 spring onions, thinly sliced about 1/4 inch thick
For the fillings
230ml vegetable oil (you may have some leftover, you’ll use it by the tablespoon to fry the tofu and batter)
200g tofu, thinly sliced into small squares
1/4 teaspoon salt
For the wraps
Pack of Vietnamese rice paper (you won’t use all of this, but you can get it very cheaply from the oriental supermarket and it lasts for ages)
A bunch of fresh herbs such as mint, thai basil and coriander
For the nước chấm dipping sauce
60ml fish sauce
4 tablespoons lime juice (use fresh limes if possible)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 garlic clove
1 small red chilli
To make dipping sauce:
1. Smash garlic and chilli in mortar and pestle with a little sugar. (If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, like me, use a bowl and the end of a rolling pin – just as effective!)
2. Add all other ingredients and mix well until sugar is dissolved.
To make bánh xèo:
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the rice flour, turmeric powder and salt.
2. Add water and coconut milk, and whisk until mixture is smooth.
3. Add chopped spring onions and leave batter to rest for 30 minutes.
4. Heat a pan over a high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and add sliced tofu. Fry until tofu is crispy on both sides, then remove from pan and put to one side.
5. Once batter has rested for 30 minutes, add 1 tablespoon of oil and a portion of tofu back into the pan. Ladle enough batter over it to cover the pan, and swirl so that the pan is coated evenly.
6. Add beansprouts over half the crêpe (on the right). Drizzle another tablespoon of oil around the edge of the crêpe and lower heat to medium.
7. Cover the pan and cook for 1 minute. Remove cover, then continue cooking until edges start to brown.
8. Loosen crêpe from the bottom of the pan with a silicon spatula. When the bottom turns light brown and crispy, fold crêpe to encase beansprouts.
9. Remove crêpe from the pan and place at the bottom of a warm oven, covered with tin foil. You just want to keep it warm, not cook it.
10. Repeat steps 5 – 9 until all batter is used/you have made enough crêpes.
11. To serve, dip a piece of rice paper in cold water, place pieces of cooked bánh xèo inside along with fresh herbs, roll tightly and dip in nước chấm sauce. Eat immediately!
If you have any leftover batter, it will keep in a container in the fridge for a few days. I’d love to hear if you try this recipe, so leave a comment below and let me know what you think!