Asia gave me wings. And Banh Xeo.
Having grown up reading, much of my cooking inspiration came from the books I read. And since most of that was European or at any rate western, all those tea parties, fairy food, jam tarts, lemonades and the like are to answer for my incessant desire to eat, cook, bake, experience western cuisines (and my girth). On the other hand, I always considered Asian food to be vaguely but politely uninteresting. How foolish, blind and delusional was I.
Travelling to Japan, Malaysia (I did tell you some on that here and here) and Singapore last year, woke me up to reality. From Mee Goreng, Char Khway Thew and Charcoal Roasted Coffee of Penang to the Laksa of Singapore to Udon, Sushi, Yakitori and Miso from Japan; I was in turns shocked, overjoyed, bewildered and humbled. The sheer audacity of flavours is astounding. The sophistication of techniques, range of produce, mastery with which flavours, spices and condiments are created, combined and layered – an education. Insight that anyone seriously interested in food needs to experience at least once. I couldn’t believe that I, who claims to be a foodie could be so utterly ignorant of what the neighbourhood has to offer – proof of how mind-numbing ignorance and neo-colonisation can be. And how much more there is to discover in the world of food and flavours.
Well, der aaye, durust aye I guess. My journey through these countries, sadly limited by budget but not imagination has helped reconfirm my love for the art of creating food. My kitchen now boasts of a permanent stock of Tamari (Japanese soy), sake, bean sprouts, miso, wakame, lemon grass, kaffir lime, sesame oil, bonito flakes and a range of precious ingredients that I discovered last year.
And while I unfairly lump all Asian cuisines together these together, Japan has a very special place in my heart and hopefully with time in my repertoire as well. But telling you all I want to, about Japan, deserves a whole post to itself. So more on that later.
The best bit is that a lot of Asian cooking is natural, fresh and very often extremely healthy and balanced. Far more friendly to my fast hurtling towards 35, suddenly decided to be gluten and dairy intolerant fickle body; and certainly very good for my soul.
Meanwhile, dear readers I know I have been remiss, in fact missing altogether, and should have shared a lot of this with you as it was happening. To atone for this in the best way that I know, I bring to you one of my favourite new discoveries. Banh Xeo – the amazing literally “sizzling cake”, a Vietnamese dish named for the loud sizzling sound it makes when the rice batter is poured into the hot skillet. I tell you, I can’t wait to get to Vietnam!
Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
Now, this here is a version without the ubiquitous fatty pork. Before all you meat eaters cry sacrilege, I urge you to give this a shot. I’m sure the fatty pork version is crazy good but I promise you this one is no small fry either. Based on a recipe my latest foodie crush, Yotam Ottolenghi, these pancakes were so healthy, fresh and so delicious that I ate them for 4 meals in a row. The pancake is creamy-nutty and wraps in all the crunch, flavour and texture from the abundant vegetables. The sauce..ah this sauce. This tangy, citrusy, spicy sweet sauce ties everything together into one memorable complex delicious dish you will not forget in a hurry. Not only is this easy to make, its super versatile and can be rustled up with a lot of variations. Whats more, gluten and dairy free too!
- 11/3 cups rice flour
- 1 small egg
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 13/4 cups canned coconut milk
- a little bit of oil to cook
- 21/2 tbsp lime juice
- 11/2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp sweet soy or fish sauce (fish sauce is traditional but light soy or a good dark version diluted with warm water should work as well)
- 2 tsp grated fresh ginger
- 1 fresh red chile, finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1/2 tsp salt
Filling. Note: Here’s a list of what goes into these but I think this lends itself to a lot of playing around. For example, I think the radish could be replaced by something else peppery like arugula. You could also use anything else thats raw. I think what works is to have enough freshness, crunch, peppery and herby-ness through the interplay of ingredients you use. I am sure steamed/boiled shrimps or flaky fish will be lovely here too. The one ingredient I wouldn’t skimp on though is the mung bean sprouts.
- 1 large carrot/ cucumber/ red or orange bell peppers – peeled and grated coarsely or julienned
- 1 radish - peeled and grated coarsely or julienned (I used radish sprouts and think anything peppery will work well..like rocket leaves or maybe even green capsicum for example)
- 4 green onions – sliced diagonally
- 11/2 cups snow peas – sliced on the diagonal. (Again, I think you can use other things here that add bulk. I used fresh spinach leaves coarsely chopped but you could probably even use tender varieties of green beans too)
- 1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves – roughly chopped
- 2/3 cup loosely packed Thai basil leaves
- 1/4 cup loosely packed mint leaves
- 1 cup mung bean sprouts
- 1 cup enoki mushrooms – Skipped these since I didn’t have any but plan on using finely sliced button mushrooms next
1. Make the pancake batter. Blend the rice flour, egg, salt, turmeric and coconut milk in a large bowl, whisking to avoid any lumps. You should have a thinnish batter which is about the consistency of thin kadhi or light cream . Add more coconut milk or water, if necessary (you may also need to add some more later, when you are cooking the pancakes, because the batter tends to thicken). Let rest.
2. Make the sauce. Whisk together all the ingredients, adjusting balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy to your liking.
3. Lay out your prepared vegetables so you are ready to plate as soon as pancakes are done.
4. Make the pancakes. When you are ready to serve the pancakes, heat up a large non-stick frying pan that is roughly 9 inches in diameter, making sure it doesn’t get extremely hot. Add a tiny amount of oil to grease the pan. Pour just enough batter to cover about 3/4 of your pan bottom and then tilt/rotate the pan so the batter spreads and covers the bottom.Once the bottom is cooked through, turn it over and cook the other side as well. Remove, keep warm and make the rest. You can also reserve the remaining batter in the fridge for about 2 days.
5. Plate. Place a warm pancake on each serving plate and pile vegetables and herbs over one half of it. Drizzle the vegetables with some sauce, and fold the pancake and spoon some more sauce on top. Serve, with any remaining sauce on the side.
The last year has in so many ways changed my relationship with food. From the workshops that I successfully conducted, being diagnosed gluten and dairy intolerant, traveling to 3 different Asian countries, starting to cook more by intuition than recipe, getting interested in organic, fresh, healthy cooking and now to a restaurant that I am working on (Yes! but more on that when I know where my head is).
PS: I know I have been missing for far too long and I have so so much more I want to share with you guys. I promise I will be back with more. And soon.