A couple of millimeters thin, chewy, savory, bánh bèo, the waterfern-shaped appetizer, is as familiar to the Vietnamese dining tables as crab cakes to Americans. But not everyone makes it at home because it takes more time than its worth: make the rice flour batter, steam the banh, make the toppings, mix the fish sauce. In fact, I’ve had homemade bánh bèo only once, and it was at my friend’s family restaurant. That said, there are skilled and dedicated grandmas who insist on making everything from scratch for the best bánh bèo. One of them is Mrs. Tự, and Little Mom happened to see one episode of her cooking show on TV last week.
So below are some tips on bánh bèo from Mrs Tự, collected from the show Nghệ Thuật Nấu Ăn Bà Tự (The Cooking Arts of Mrs Tự) on Global TV Houston.
The thinner bánh bèo is the better bánh bèo. Of course, resilience is a must, it should not be as chewy as a mochi, but it should have enough strength to hold itself together as the eater picks it up with chopsticks. How to make a thin but resilient bánh bèo? Heat the bánh bèo plates (or molds)* in the steamer before pouring in the batter and steaming the bánh. I suspect that this preheating helps cook the batter evenly in all directions, instead of having the bottom cold and cooking it with steam from only the top surface during the first few moments.
Bánh bèo of the South has savory mung bean paste for topping, and bánh bèo Huế usually has pan-dried shrimp (tôm chấy), which blogger Tran Ngoc Kha translated as cotton shrimp for its fluffy texture. Fresh shrimp** (with head, legs, shell, everything) goes without saying: while peeling off the shell, you can keep the gạch, a substance located in the head of the shrimp that becomes reddish orange when cooked, to sweeten and fatten the toppings***. How to make the shrimps dry and fluffy? Microwave the peeled shrimps so that the meat is red, plump, and has a spring to it. Then pound the shrimps to break up the bodies, but not to a paste. And fry it on high heat with constant shuffling.
But bánh bèo can also be topped with pork rind. To make the pork rind, Mrs. Tự would slice the skin off the pork belly, boil it, cut into thin strips, refrigerate them, and finally deep fry them. The refrigerating step prevents the fat from shooting everywhere while frying. How to tell when the skin is refrigerated long enough? If you bend the strip and it gives a loud, clean snap, it’s done.
Then there is also topping made with bean paste, meat and tapioca, seen on bánh bèo in Quảng Nam Đà Nẵng. The better tapioca flour (bột năng) is not the white powder straight from the bag, but that which is pan-dried to really rid of moisture. How to know when the flour is dry enough? Mrs. Tự puts either a pandan leaf or a piece of a banana leaf into the wok as she constantly stirs the flour, the heat from the flour vaporizes the moisture in the leaf, when the leaf dries up and becomes crunchy, the flour is done.
(*) Bánh bèo should be made in mini shallow cups (like sauce cups) made of porcelain. The molds are convenient but render a metallic taste, the bánh bèo would be too thick and oily because the molds have to be greased before steaming.
(**) Some places serve up bánh bèo tôm chấy with packaged dried shrimp (tôm khô). Never go there.
(***) Crabs have more gạch than shrimps, so gạch cua (gạch from crabs) is more well-known in Vietnamese cooking. In Japanese, gạch cua is indeed kanimiso, the brownish grey substance that is a mix of the crab’s internal organs (brain, liver, pancreas, intestine, eggs, etc.). Good stuff. 🙂