Singapore Cooks

Learn to make banh xeo

Vietnamese Giao Chau learnt to cook her mother's dishes when she was a homesick student here

If someone had told finance researcher Giao Chau that she would become the de-facto chef among her friends seven years ago, she would have laughed.

The Vietnamese, who has been based in Singapore for seven years, has come a long way from "just preparing ingredients", as her family was afraid that she would ruin dinners, to whipping up Vietnamese, Singaporean and Middle Eastern dishes.

The turning point came when she moved here to study finance at the Singapore Management University in 2008.

Living on a shoestring budget and feeling homesick, she was forced to pick up cooking, but not without getting scolded on the telephone by her mother, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City.

Ms Chau, 26, recalls with a laugh: "During my first year here, I called my mother once a week and asked about everything from slicing vegetables to cooking fish and she would start each call by giving me an earful about not having paid attention when she cooked."

One of the perks of living with housemates here, she says, is having "guinea pigs" to taste the dishes she makes using family recipes and ones she finds online.

  • MAKE IT YOURSELF: VIETNAMESE CREPE

  • INGREDIENTS

    For the filling
    |150g pork belly, sliced 1cm thick 3 shallots, thinly sliced 1/2 tsp salt 1/4 tsp black pepper 2 tsp sugar 1 tsp fish sauce 1/2 Tbs vegetable oil 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 150g prawns, shelled 100g beansprouts

    For the crepes
    40g rice flour 105g all-purpose flour 1/2 tsp turmeric powder 210ml warm water 60ml coconut milk 2 stalks spring onion, finely chopped Salt and sugar to taste 1/2 tsp vegetable oil 200g lettuce leaves

    For the sauce
    2 Tbs fish sauce Juice from half a kaffir lime 4 Tbs warm water 2 Tbs sugar 1 bird's eye chilli, finely chopped

    METHOD
    1. In a mixing bowl, marinate pork belly slices with shallots, salt, black pepper, sugar and fish sauce, and let sit 15 minutes. 2. In a pan set over medium heat, add vegetable oil and chopped garlic. Fry the garlic until fragrant. 3. Add prawns and fry for about three minutes. Remove prawns and add the pork belly slices. When the meat starts to curl up, turn heat down to low and cook for about 10 minutes. Add some water if the pan gets too dry. Set aside the prawns and pork. 4. In a mixing bowl, add rice flour, all-purpose flour, turmeric powder, water, coconut milk and spring onions. Mix thoroughly. Add salt and sugar to taste. 5. Add vegetable oil to a 15cm-wide non-stick frying pan set over high heat and place four prawns and four pork belly slices evenly across the pan. 6. Ladle 60ml of the batter into the pan and immediately swirl the pan around until the batter is spread across evenly. Cover the pan with a lid and let it cook for about one minute. 7. Add some beansprouts to one side of the crepe (above) and close the lid. Move the pan to ensure that the sides are closer to the fire, to crisp the crepe's edges up. 8. Once the beansprouts turn translucent, fold the crepe up to cover the beansprouts and transfer it to a plate. Repeat with the rest of the batter and beansprouts to make six crepes in total. 9. To make the sauce, combine the ingredients in a bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add more lime juice or fish sauce to taste. 10. To eat, cut a piece of crepe, wrap it in a lettuce leaf and dip the parcel in the sauce.

    Makes six 15cm-wide crepes

Over the years, she has grown more confident of her culinary skills and the kitchen has become a place where she feels "most comfortable" in.

"I get a sense of achievement when friends like my cooking and tell me that my food is more than just edible," she says. "This motivates me to learn to cook more dishes for them."

One of her must-do dishes for gatherings among friends is the Vietnamese crepe called banh xeo (pronounced baan say-oh).

Xeo refers to the sizzling sounds made when the batter touches the hot pan.

The crepes, which are yellow from turmeric powder, are studded with sliced pork belly and shrimp. Pieces of it are wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped in a zesty fish sauce and chilli dip before eating.

She enjoys the well-rounded balance of texture and flavours of banh xeo - from the crunchiness of the lettuce wrap and the crisp edges of the crepe to the chewiness of the pork belly slices.

"You cannot eat this dish by yourself. It is more fun to divide the preparation work among friends and assemble the crepes together," she says.

It is crucial to manoeuvre the pan deftly as one needs to ladle the batter into the pan, while twirling it to ensure that the batter is spread evenly.

Over the years, she has perfected her mother's recipe for the crepes and has even given them a Western twist by adding sausages and bacon.

Besides banh xeo, Ms Chau also enjoys cooking Vietnamese dishes such as spring rolls and hu tieu, a pork-based rice noodles soup, sweet green bean soup with coconut and her aunt's recipe for porridge cooked with carrots and daikon, which has glutinous rice stirred in to give a creamier texture.

To help preserve "a taste of home", she brings back fish sauce, soya sauce and black pepper from her twice-yearly trips to Vietnam.

Her father, 62, is a retired petrol kiosk attendant and her mother, 58, is a retired kindergarten teacher.

Living in Singapore has broadened her food horizons.

On top of going on food trails with her friends here, she also cooks dishes such as bak kut teh (pork rib soup), fried carrot cake and her favourite local dish, laksa, which is her "creamy and spicy indulgence".

Ms Chau, who is single and has an older sister, 34, says cooking has made her more reflective. "I am a quiet and reserved person. Cooking brings up memories and experiences that are linked to food and motivates me to write my thoughts down."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline 'Wrapping a taste of home'. Print Edition | Subscribe