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June 14, 2024

Banh Xeo: The Best of Vietnamese Street Food

4 min read

Banh Xeo is truly the best of Vietnamese street food; in fact, it is so good that it even crosses borders! Now living in Cambodia, I have been treated to Banh Chao more than once (thats what they call it here). I have even had banh xeo in a Vietnamese restaurant here, but truly, nothing beats real banh xeo in Vietnam.

What is Banh Xeo?

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Bánh xèo ([ɓǎjŋ̟ sɛ̂w]) is a crispy cake type thing that gets stuffed with all kinds of goodness, including meats, herbs, lettuce, prawns, onions, bean sprouts, and a whole host of other top ingredients.

How you have your Banh Xeo depends greatly on where in Vietnam you are, who is cooking, and if you are having street food Banh Xeo or in a posh restaurant!

OK, so that has not really described what the dish is, so let’s break it down and then put it back together!

What is banh in banh xeo?

You have probably heard of and eaten banh mi, which, for all intents and purposes, is a Vietnamese baguette. In Cambodia, they have a similar, if somewhat inferior, dish called Num Pang, with the num and the banh meaning the same thing.

Banh literally means cake in Vietnamese, rather than bread, as most people assume. This means it gives its name to numerous dishes that are all extremely different from each other. The banh in banh xeo refers to the yellow crispy pancake that accompanies this dish. It is a rice pancake that is very crispy on the outside but very soft in the middle. Apparently it sizzles when you put it in the pan or skillet, which brings us to the xeo.

What is xeo in banh xeo?

Well, I kind of gave the game away with the last sentence there. Xeo means sizzle, or to sizzle, so banh xeo is literally “cake sizzling,” but this is very much more than a cake, and this is very much more than a name.

The sizzle part, if not what makes Banh Xeo so unique, is the weird concoction of how they cook it, what you have with it, and indeed, how you eat it. This makes Banh Xeo a street food sensation.

What is involved in banh xeo?

Watching the rice pancakes get cooked is really part of the pleasure! It does indeed sizzle and is cooked very quickly. You then traditionally get it served with some lettuce, variations of meat, fish, local herbs, or more common ones like coriander and the like. I have even had it with mint leaves.

Also, you get Vietnamese or, if in Cambodia, Cambodian hot sauce. Vietnamese hot sauce tends to be hotter and less sweet, but that is an article for another team. And then you eat it, right? I’ll deal with how to eat banh xeo right at the end. Next stop: origins.

Where is Banh Xeo from?

Banh Xeo is from Vietnam, as previously discussed; it has since transcended and moved into places like Cambodia, where it is very much a staple of the street food scene. There is also a Thai variation known as Khanom bueang Yuan. I, for one, have not tried this.

The dish originates in Central Vietnam, like DMZ type territory; you can read about street food in Hue here (link). Central Vietnamese Banh Xeo is more fish-oriented and has ingredients more suited to the climate and region. Southern Vietnamese Banh Xeo is pretty much indistinguishable from Cambodian Banh Chao, although Cambodia very much uses its own herbs.

How do you eat Banh Xeo?

The meat and goodness get served on the banh, the rice pancake, and then you are given the lettuce, etc. to add to it. You use the “bread,” much like injera, as the cutlery, add some herbs, chili, spices, or whatever, and then ideally wrap it in a lettuce leaf.

Like a Vietnamese sandwich?

Is Banh Xeo a Vietnamese sandwich? Yes, and no. Banh Mi is the Vietnamese sandwich, but there are some similarities. I would say that in many respects, and as previously mentioned, it more reminds me of Injera of Ethiopian and Eritrean fame.

Overall, wherever you are, this is a great dish for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or washed down with some fine Vietnamese or less than fine Cambodian beer. Is it my favorite Vietnamese street food? No, it is not, but as I have said many times, Vietnam has the best street food in the world, bar none.

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