04/16/13 • VIETNAMESE PANCAKES
From the March, 2013 Food and Wine
The arrival of warmer weather—or even the promise of it—invariably starts me yearning for the sort of spicy, exotic food I might encounter on a far-flung adventure somewhere. Most of the time it’s an urge I satisfy with a visit to a favorite Indian or Korean restaurant (I have a serious weakness for kimchee), though increasingly I’m experimenting with cooking these sorts of dishes myself. Often they’re way less complicated than I’d imagined, and the various ingredients are already sitting in the pantry. But if the recipe calls for a lot of items I don’t have or can’t source easily, I’m generally inclined to skip it—as much as I admire those who can make a day out of trekking to some out-of-the-way Asian market, that’s just not me. I’m in too much of a rush to get on with the cooking, and the eating! Happily, none of the steps associated with this recipe for Vietnamese pancakes—neither the shopping, nor the making—interfered with a speedy delivery to the table… or my mouth. What’s more, the end result presents just the sort of spicy, crunchy, juicy combo that’s the perfect accompaniment to a warm spring or summer night, not to mention an ice-cold bottle of beer!
First, I should clarify that the word “pancake” here is more in keeping with the French version of the dish (i.e., a crêpe) than it is the American variety. Many years ago, when I was studying in Paris for a semester, one of my favorite meals (and one of the few I could actually afford) was a crêpe wrapped around a few thin slices of ham and a tangle of grated Gruyère cheese. This pancake is a little like that, but heartier, and with a pronounced Asian twist, thanks to the presence of ingredients such as pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and onions, and to a tangy dipping sauce. That crêpe-connection, however, doesn’t mean making this recipe requires anything as “advanced” as a specialized crêpe pan—in fact, it’s best made using that staple of virtually every modern home kitchen: a large, nonstick skillet. Similarly, the most complex (if you can even call it that) items called for by the recipe are rice flour and Asian fish sauce, both of which are widely available at most markets. In other words, just exotic enough to make my mouth water, but not so exotic that I’d have to rebuild my kitchen to produce them.
And the process of making the pancakes is quite simple as well, with each one taking just five minutes or so to complete. That said, unless you have multiple nonstick pans to call into play, they must be made one at a time (the completed pancakes can be kept warm in a 250˚ oven with no adverse effects). More importantly, however, whipping up a batch of these babies is fun, offering the immediate gratification of everything coming together before your eyes. To start, place a few slices of pork, mushrooms, and onions, along with a scattering of shrimp, in a pan containing a small amount of hot vegetable oil and let everything cook together for a minute or so. Next add a little salt and pepper, followed by 1/3 cup of the batter—a mixture of rice flour, cold water, a small amount of turmeric, and a sliced scallion. Tilt the pan so the batter spreads evenly, making sure it works its way under the various other ingredients, then cover and let cook undisturbed for five minutes or so, just until the edges of the pancake begin to curl and reveal a deep brown color. Scatter a small handful of the bean sprouts across the surface of the pancake, fold it in half, and then slide onto you platter. And that’s it.
Those bean sprouts add just the right amount of moisture and crunchy sweetness to the finished dish—just the thing to offset the wonderful flavors of the cooked pork and shrimp. And the crêpe itself, which is both thinner and lacier than the traditional variety thanks to that rice flour, is the perfect vehicle for all the sweet and salty goodness delivered by the medley of ingredients.
Of course, no Southeast Asian snack of this type would be complete without a dipping sauce that’s simultaneously sweet and spicy. Here that quality is provided by a combination of red chiles or jalapeño (personally I think the chiles are the better option, which as you’ll note is not what’s pictured below), pulverized along with a few sliced garlic cloves and 2 tablespoons sugar, all of it mixed together with the fish sauce, some fresh lime juice, and a little water. Both bracing and lip smacking, it’s the ideal accompaniment to the pancakes—one that has the dual benefit of cutting through the richness of the dish while also rendering the finished product compulsively eatable.
The magazine calls these “happy pancakes” and given the smile that stretched across my face as I took my first few bites, I can see why.
Ingredients for the dipping sauce:
—2 Thai red chiles or 1 medium jalapeño, thickly sliced
—2 medium garlic cloves, thickly sliced
—2 tbs sugar
—2 tbs Asian fish sauce
—2 tbs fresh lime juice
—2 tbs water
Ingredients for the pancakes:
—1¾ cups rice flour
—1/4 tsp turmeric
—1 scallion, thinly sliced
—3/4 cup plus 3 tbs vegetable oil
—1 lb boneless pork loin, cut crosswise into very thin slices
—1/2 lb medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
—1/2 small onion, thinly sliced
—10 medium mushrooms, sliced
—Salt and freshly ground pepper
—2½ cups mung bean sprouts
Directions for the dipping sauce:
—In a mortar, pound the chiles, garlic, and sugar to a paste. Stir in the fish sauce, lime juice, and water.
Directions for the pancakes:
—In a bowl, whisk together the rice flour and 2 cups of cold water. Mix in the turmeric and scallion.
—In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1½ tbs of the vegetable oil over high heat. Add 3 slices of pork, 3 shrimp, and a few slices of onion and mushroom. Season with 1/8 tsp each of salt and pepper. Cook for 1 minute.
—Stir the rice flour mixture again and ladle 1/3 cup into the pan; tilt the pan to evenly distribute the batter. Cover and cook until the sides of the pancake turn deep brown and curl up, 5 minutes.
—Scatter ¼ cup of the bean sprouts over the pancake, fold it in half, and slide it onto a warm platter.
—Keep warm in a low oven while you repeat with the remaining ingredients.
—Serve the pancakes warm, with the dipping sauce on the side.
Makes about 10 pancakes