I have always loved Vietnamese cuisine for its raw, pickled or lightly cooked crunchy vegetables, its plates mounded with fragrant herbs such as mint, cilantro and Thai basil, its focus on steaming and stir-frying, its light touch with sauces,its broth-y soups and lean meats.
When I found out I had a wheat-intolerance several years ago, I realized traditional Vietnamese cuisine offered a wealth of options. Rice, rice noodles, rice paper, rice flour…these are magic words to spot on a restaurant menu for a person with celiac disease or other wheat or gluten sensitivity and happily, they are the mainstays of many Vietnamese dishes. Two of my favorites, Vietnamese crepe and spring rolls, are served with a flair at Anh Hong in Berkeley, (as well as their other locations in San Francisco, Milpitas and San Jose).
Bánh xèo is often translated as crepe, but sometimes as pancake or omelet. Its batter is basically made of rice flour, turmeric and coconut water. Oil is heated in a large frying pan and when the batter is poured in it sizzles. The dish’s name is an onomatopoeic reference to the loud sizzling sound –xèo xèo. (Banh means cake). After the batter is quickly swirled around, green onions, bean sprouts, shrimp and pork, for example, are added to the pan. The heat is kept high while the crepe cooks. As soon as the edges become crisp and golden, the crepe is folded in half and ready to eat. The goal is to attain crispy edges and a soft center. It usually resembles a lovely yellow half-moon and is served with large lettuce leaves, mint, cilantro or other herbs. You may take a piece of lettuce with your hand and use it to wrap up a small piece of crepe with some herbs, dip it in nuoc cham, traditional dipping sauce and pop it in your mouth. (Recipe)
My other favorite dish at Anh Hong is their DIY spring rolls, listed on the menu under Wraps and Rolls. This is a great idea to order for a group as it is lots of fun to make and eat; always a source of laughter as your guests get the hang of rolling their own (dinner). You get a basket of thin rice paper wrappers, a bowl of hot water, a plate of pickled carrots and jicama, cucumber and bean sprouts, and a huge mound of lettuce and herbs.
Plus, you order your choice of meat. I love the BBQ chicken marinated in a lemongrass sauce, served with squiggly rice noodle cakes and the “3X grilled beef platter” with a sampling of beef varieties: sausages, beef rolled around lemon grass and beef wrapped in piper leaf.
You dip a rice paper disk in the hot water for a few seconds, then lay it out flat on your plate and add the veggies and meat at one end. You are then supposed to wrap it up neatly in a tight roll, but don’t worry if you don’t fashion the ideal package instantly, you’ll have plenty of chances to perfect your technique. Again served with nuoc cham dipping sauce, (whose key ingredient is a fish sauce called nuoc mam).The best thing is that after making and eating innumerable rolls with these light, fresh ingredients, I am satisfied but not stuffed.
Anh Hong also has a sweet YouTube video that shows you exactly how to make a roll. Don’t feel bad — Mine never come out as neat.