Much of what we learn while cooking with others is found in the seemingly offhand remarks — this is how it looks, this is how it smells, this is how to tell it’s done. Born and raised in Da Nang, Rose Van recently led a series of Vietnamese cooking classes that gave our small group a chance to go beyond the recipe, explore a relatively unfamiliar cuisine, and learn firsthand some of the things that can only be conveyed in person. Over several evenings, we cooked and dined on a variety of Vietnamese dishes, including Banh Xeo, or Vietnamese Crispy Pancakes, and Banh Canh Tom Hum, or Vietnamese Udon Noodles with Lobster.
The ingredients for Banh Xeo, literally “sizzling cake,” included those for the pancake batter, the pancake filling, the dipping sauce, and the vegetable garnish. Above, left: Ground pork liver, ground pork, and lemongrass for the dipping sauce; shrimp, thinly sliced pork, and bean sprouts for the filling. Above, right: Green papaya and carrots for the pickle; scallions for garlic flavoring; and cucumber, lettuce, and a mix of fresh herbs (fish mint, mint, Asian basil, and cilantro) for garnish.
While frying up lemongrass and garlic for the dipping sauce, Rose explains how the addition of pork liver and ground pork is particular to the region around Da Nang, which sits midway between the North Central and South Central Coasts of Vietnam.
Similar to crepes, the pancake batter is a thin mix of rice flour, cornstarch, coconut milk, turmeric, and minced scallions. To make the pancakes, the pan is left to preheat, then a slick of oil added. A few slices of pork are added to the pan, and sautéed until barely cooked. Next, batter is swirled into the still hot pan, making a sizzling sound as it coats the bottom of the hot pan.
To complete the filling, several pieces of sliced shrimp and a small handful of bean sprouts are place on top of the pancake. The pan is then covered briefly to allow the filling to warm up.
Once the cover is removed, the pancake is folded in half, omelette-style, and left to cook further until crispy and browned on both sides.
The pancakes are cooked one at a time, and everyone gets a chance to make them until we have a full platter.
Each pancake is cut in half, and rolled in rice paper with a choice of fresh garnishes — lettuce leaves, picked herbs, thin slices of cucumber, and a pickle made from shredded green papaya and carrots — creating a bundle of bright, clear flavors and contrasting textures, all grounded by a deeply savory dipping sauce spiced with snips of red chilies.
Banh Canh Tom Hum, or Vietnamese Udon Noodles with Lobster, is made with several different components: Hand-made noodles, pork broth, lobster broth and meat, fried shallots, and pork cracklings. Above, left: Sliced shallots left out to air dry before frying; Vietnamese mint, scallions, red chili, and lime for garnishing the soup. Lobster would have been prohibitively expensive in Vietnam, and crab or shrimp can be used in its place. These were from a nearby lobster pound, and rambunctiously fresh. After a quick rinse, the lobsters were steamed, the meat picked, and the brothy cooking water saved for later.
For the pork broth, the ribs are chopped into bite-sized pieces, blanched and rinsed, then covered again with water. They’re simmered along with an onion for at least an hour, skimming all the while for the clearest of broths. It is then flavored with some of the lobster cooking water and seasoned with fish sauce to form the base of the soup.
Unlike the Japanese udon, which uses wheat flour, Rose uses a mix of tapioca starch and rice flour for this Vietnamese version. Despite the softening effect of adding boiling hot water, the dough is stubborn and is tamed only through patient kneading.
After a session of vigorous kneading, the dough has become silky and smooth. It’s allowed to rest, then rolled out by hand in small batches.
The noodles are cut into 2 to 3 inch long strips, about 1/4 inch wide, and will swell up when cooked.
The cut noodles are dumped all at once into boiling water, and left to set before stirring. As they finish cooking, they float to the surface, and are ready to be scooped out into a bowl of cold water. After draining and rinsing, they’re then reheated and held in another bowl of warm water, ready to serve.
All that remains is to make the fried garnishes — pork fat is rendered into cracklings, and shallots are sautéed until crispy. The remaining oil and rendered fat are mixed, then heated with anatto to add color. The components waiting to be assembled (above, right): Lobster meat, minced Vietnamese mint and scallions, red pepper flakes, black pepper, and the anatto oil with fried shallots and cracklings.
Cooked noodles are placed in individual bowls, topped with each of the garnishes, and bathed in hot broth. Each spoonful of this fragrant soup is layered with a complex combination of flavors and textures — soft and slightly toothy noodles, tender morsels of lobster lending sweetness, chewy chunks of pork, and crispy shallots and crunchy cracklings. Separate bowls hold fish sauce flavored with red chilies to be added at whim, while mint, scallions and a squeeze of lime add their own distintctive notes. We’re told if there’s any broth leftover, to refill our bowls and sop it up with pieces of crusty baguette.
Special thanks to Rose for sharing these dishes from her homeland with us, and to Kittery Adult Education for hosting these classes. To find out more about Rose and the classes she offers, visit Van Vietnamese Cooking.