We all have those edible obsessions that, when given the chance, would have us in a drool-splattered trance, incessantly devouring the delicious item, zombie-like, until nothing but crumbs or oily traces remained as evidence. My current food lust: Vietnamese banh khot.
Vietnam’s coastal city of Vũng Tàu, just southeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), is the probable birthplace of my latest food obsession. These tiny rice pancakes shaped like shallow cups are typically made with a rice-flour and coconut-milk batter (similar to the type used for a related dish called banh xeo or Vietnamese crepe). Traditionally, mung beans, chopped green onions, garlic, and a piece of shrimp dress the savory, slightly sweet snack.
Prepared in cast-iron, metal, or earthenware molds similar to Danish aebleskiver or Japanese takoyaki pans, the batter is fried in puddles of oil within each cavity, then covered to finish. The desired results are crispy edges and a gentle, caky center.
Banh khot is similar to banh can, with the differences mainly being the toppings. Bahn khot is strictly punctuated with shrimp; in contrast, banh can might be crowned with squid, pork, green beans, and even quail eggs.
There are various ways of delivering your banh khot to your mouth. If you are familiar with Vietnamese food, then you’ve likely wrapped tasty items like crispy spring rolls inside lettuce or leafy greens before dunking the delicacy into nuoc cham, a fish-sauce-based condiment that covers the spectrum of flavors from salty to sweet and sour to spicy. The same technique can be applied when eating banh khot: Place the mini pancake onto a large leaf, add herbs and shredded green papaya, fold the leaf, then dip into sauce, and eat.
My friend and excellent home cook Trang Nguyen tells me of another style of eating banh khot that requires taking two pieces and uniting them to make a banh khot ball of sorts. Grab the pair, submerge into sauce, then eat. But, really, just get the tasty thing into your mouth (and not onto the floor), and you’re golden.
Nguyen also explains that the banh khot batter itself can vary, too. Commonly, turmeric is incorporated, which gives the mini pancake a golden yellow hue, while other recipes opt out, resulting in a white banh khot.
Several Vietnamese restaurants around Southern California serve up this wee pancake. The low-rent Song Huong in Garden Grove makes a shrimp-less banh khot topped with only chopped green onion. In Little Saigon, Thanh Ha is celebrated for its banh xeo but also makes traditional banh khot with shrimp. In the San Gabriel Valley, Ha Tien Quan scatters many small pieces of shrimp, ground pork, and shredded green papaya atop its mini rice pancakes.
Brodard Restaurant in Garden Grove, however, creates a superior banh khot (oddly called “moon cake” on the menu) that satisfies with visual appeal, hefty whole shrimp, and generous, fresh vegetal accoutrement for wrapping and dipping. These banh khot bites are ideal as an appetizer, but easily can be doubled up and turned into a meal. Bonus: they’re plated on a boat!
The banh khot boat—you, my friend, have permission to board.
Song Huong, 10141 Westminster Ave., #N, Garden Grove, 714-537-9304
Thanh Ha, 9060 Bolsa Ave., Little Saigon, 714-890-5709
Ha Tien Quan, 529 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, 626-288-1896
Brodard Restaurant, 9892 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, 714-530-1744