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Thy: It's banh xeo, and I guess literally it means 'sizzling sound cake' and sometimes it's translated as happy cake, because the connotation of the sound is a happy sound and it comes from, very directly, when you pour the batter into the pan and you're making the crepe, it makes this intense sizzling sound.

(huge sizzling sound)

I was making dosas one day, which is a rice flat-bread from South India, and I pour the batter into the pan and it makes the exact same sound as banh xeo and I stood there and I thought, that's really bizarre… and I didn't think anything of it but as I'm cooking the dosa, because, like banh xeo, like all crepes, there's this down time as you're waiting for the crepe to cook, and I started thinking about this recipe for the dosa and I realize well, it's based on rice flour, it has dal in it, and it's fermented. The banh xeo is not fermented, but very, very, very similar, so that kind of got me thinking and as I started doing my research more, I did find that there was a lot of exchange culturally and trade-wise between South India and Southeast Asia long ago.. we're talking first millennium.

(cooking sounds)

[Check to see if it's golden brown on the bottom edge... cook a little bit more...]

Right now, I do a lot of editing and research and writing, and my speciality is the culture and history of Asian food.

[…it's looking good, so it's ready for the filling… just take a small handful of the filling—not too much. Spread it in the middle.]

Because it's a crepe, people assume that it was from the French. And I've seen, actually, a couple of recipes that use eggs, which would be very, very French. The recipe traditionally is just rice that's been soaked in water, and then ground very finely, and water added with some coconut milk and some turmeric and that makes the batter.

Now if you eat the dish in a restaurant, and often when people make it, they use bean sprouts, but actually, you should be using just the mung bean, and that would have been something that came from India because using the mung bean in a main dish is not something you find in Asia much. Beans are used as deserts. And the other thing is the use of turmeric and the use of coconut milk in the batter. That all would have come from India, so it's not French; it's more Indian influence.

[chopping noises]

Your chef can tell if your knife is dull by the sound it makes as it's cutting vegetables. Everything from the listening to water boiling to when you're searing off a chicken breast or a fish fillet, you'll be able to tell the progression of the cooking by the sound it's making. The sizzling sound will intensify, or it will decrease depending on what you're cooking.

[…and fold it over in half…and slide it off onto the plate and there we have our first banh xeo.]

So what you do is—and this is classic Vietnamese—where you eat with your fingers and that you have a lot of layers of flavor, and also that the diners make your own food. And what you're going to do is grab a lettuce leaf, and then you take what you like.

And what we have here is fresh mint, fresh cilantro, cucumbers, and some pickled carrots, and some pickled shallots. And you just lay that on, and then tear off with your fingers, a blob, and then wrap it up, and then—this is messy—and then you dip [crunch] and then you eat!

Thy Tran is an award winning culinary writer. She spent four months in Asia researching her forthcoming book, inspired by the sound of dosas and banh xeo, the happy sound pancake.


January 2002

Happy Sound Pancake

Produced by Robynn Takayama (nonogirl.com), January 2002

Bánh Xèo

A crêpe is a crêpe is a crêpe…or is it? Listen to this sound piece and learn just what's in a name.

One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes hails from the old, imperial city of Hue. Not far from the shores of the Perfume River, you can taste the classic version of banh xeo a crisp, golden crêpe folded over tender shrimp and pork. Another traveler, Hai Pham, passed the sidewalk vendor above while in Saigon, where banh xeo have become very popular.