I jump on my bike and head to my neighborhood grocery store, a five-minute ride from my apartment. On the way I make a quick stop at Lang Bakery for a banh mi sandwich and a cup of Vietnamese iced coffee. I then cross the street and enter Super Cao Nguyen, a Vietnamese grocery store the size of Springfield’s Meijer. Inside its entrance vendors are selling street food from carts. The market’s aisles brim with fresh shrimp, baguettes, sticky rice baskets, seaweed, quail eggs and rice. You can even find duck balut (eggs with partially developed embryos). In the back a hand-lettered sign lets you choose from 12 different ways to get your fish, beginning with “Head On, Gut Out, Fin Off.”
I’m not in Southeast Asia. I’m in the Southwest United States. I’m living next to Oklahoma City’s Asian District, a vibrant community full of restaurants, markets and nightlife, all adorned with distinctive Asian signage. Within the 10-block radius surrounding my grocery store I can choose from over 30 restaurants serving pho, Vietnam’s iconic soup.
When I accepted a job in Oklahoma City I envisioned moving to the Wild West. Indeed Oklahoma has the largest Native American population of any state in the U.S. However Oklahoma City doesn’t look too much different than Springfield – just bigger and more prosperous. What really surprised me was the extent of the Vietnamese presence. Of major U.S. cities, only San Jose, Honolulu, Oakland and Houston have a larger per capita population of Vietnamese Americans than Oklahoma City. The Vietnamese began arriving in Oklahoma 40 years ago and their culture has been preserved through their food.
Vietnamese cuisine is very light, nutritious, dairy-free, and characterized by the extensive use of fresh herbs. A good example is the popular street food dish bánh xèo. Meaning “sizzling cake,” the name refers to the sound this crêpe’s batter makes when poured into a hot pan. They are traditionally served with a filling of shrimp or pork and bean sprouts and are eaten by tearing them into pieces and wrapping in lettuce leaves, garnishing with fresh herbs and dipping into a spicy sauce.
Crispy Vietnamese crêpes with shrimp and bean sprouts
Makes 4 crêpes
For the crêpes:
1 ½ c. rice flour
1 c. coconut milk
¾ c. water
1 tsp. turmeric
½ tsp. kosher or sea salt
½ tsp. curry powder
Thinly sliced green parts of 3 scallions
For the filling:
½ lb. shelled deveined shrimp, halved if large
Thinly sliced white parts of 3 scallions
1 tsp. minced garlic
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 T. fish sauce
1 T. light brown sugar
½ lb. oyster mushrooms or button mushrooms
2 T. vegetable oil
2 cups fresh bean sprouts
For the dipping sauce:
3 Thai chilies or one Serrano or Jalapeno chili, thinly sliced
1 tsp. minced garlic
3 T. light brown sugar
2 T. lime juice
4 T. fish sauce
½ c. warm water
1 T. grated carrot
Soft lettuce leaves, such as leaf lettuce, Boston or bibb
Thai basil, cilantro, and mint leaves
Vietnamese dipping sauce
Combine the dry ingredients for the crêpes, and stir to combine. Add the coconut milk and water and whisk until completely mixed. Stir in the scallion greens and let stand at least 30 minutes, or refrigerate for up to 2 days. Before using, whisk again to mix completely.
While the batter rests, make the dipping sauce. Combine the chilies, garlic, brown sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, water and carrot in a jar or bowl and stir or shake until the sugar is dissolved. Taste the dipping sauce. You may want to add more fish sauce, lime juice or sugar or reduce the strength of the sauce with a little additional water.
To make the filling: mix together the scallions, garlic, pepper, fish sauce, light brown sugar. Then gently stir in the shrimp. Let stand for about 15 minutes.
Tear the oyster mushrooms into shreds, or thinly slice the button mushrooms. Heat the tablespoon of oil in a large skillet or wok over high heat and when hot add the mushrooms. Stir-fry until the mushrooms are lightly browned and cooked through. Set aside. Add additional tablespoon oil to pan and stir-fry the shrimp until they are just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, add back the mushrooms and set aside.
With the bean sprouts and the mushroom/shrimp mixture close at hand, place a 10-inch nonstick skillet over high heat and add a tablespoon of oil. Stir the crêpe batter well, and when the oil is very hot, pour in ½ c. of the batter. Swirl the pan to coat the bottom of the pan evenly. Immediately sprinkle a small handful (about 1/3 c.) of bean sprouts evenly over half the batter and then quickly spread about a ¼ of the mushroom/shrimp mixture evenly over the sprouts. Cover the pan and cook for 3-4 minutes or until the sprouts have softened slightly and the edges of the crêpe are browned. The batter should be just set, still soft but not liquid on the surface. Lift a corner of the crêpe up and check the bottom. It should be browned and crispy. Flip the half of the crêpe that has no filling over onto the other side, remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand for about 2 minutes. Slide onto a plate and serve immediately, with the lettuce, herbs and dipping sauce. Repeat with the remaining batter and filling.