On first appearances, banh xeo is a rigid, forearm-length yellow crepe folded into a crescent. Ha Nguyen’s version barely fits on the oval plate it’s dished onto at Thanh Ha 2, Ha’s Vietnamese restaurant in Abbotsford.
Banh xeo translates to “sizzling pancake” because it’s made by pouring savoury batter into a hot wok and spreading it thin to the edges. You need to work fast. As it sets, slices of pork, cooked prawns, shallots, bean sprouts and mung beans are tossed in so they stick to the pancake, before it’s folded and served with lettuces and herbs.
As Ha finishes a bowl of crab and prawn noodle soup, she periodically pokes the waiting pancake with the end of her pen, making sure it’s still stiff and crisp.
I ask her to show me how to eat it, and she does it for me. She lays two long lettuce leaves on top of each other with one hand, then cracks off a piece of the pancake with the other, pinching an extra prawn. She then rolls it all up with a sprig each of mint and Thai basil and asks, “fingers okay?” before handing me the tight bundle. It’s fresh and satisfying.
“It’s a community dish, you order it and everyone digs in. You never eat a whole banh xeo to yourself,” says Ha’s daughter Lisa, who is on hand with her sister Jenny to translate for their mum.
There are several different types and sizes of banh xeo across Vietnam. Some are the size of 50-cent coins, others are like tacos; Ha’s specialty is the giant banh xeo, which, when you can find it, can be more like an omelette in texture. Even in Vietnam attention isn’t always paid to the crispness of the batter.
Ha’s not the only one cooking the popular dish in Melbourne. Banh xeo can be found at Vietnamese restaurants in Footscray, for example, and even contemporary Vietnamese joints such as now-closed Prahran diner Saigon Sally had a version – its were smaller, taco-sized pancakes, made like a soft, eggy crepe. But Thanh Ha 2 is where the local community, and beyond, comes for the giant, super-crisp pancakes.
“Banh xeo is a poor person’s food really because it’s got all the ingredients from the rice fields,” including the herbs and rice-paddy shrimp, Jenny explains. Rice is soaked overnight, then milled by hand in a stone grinder. The resulting liquid and dried rice pulp, along with a pinch of ground turmeric for colour, makes the pancake.
Ha is from Mo Cay, a small village 100 kilometres south of Saigon in the Mekong Delta region, where the giant banh xeo style originates.
Her father taught at a primary school and earned little, and her mother raised six daughters and four sons. As the eldest daughter, it was Ha’s job to cook for the family of 12.
“Every morning I got up at about five o’clock and cooked soup or made sticky rice for the whole family,” she says. “When I was 15, my mum and dad taught me how to make banh xeo.”
During Ha’s early years in Melbourne – she arrived from Vietnam in 1993 – her husband Lau worked in a local Vietnamese restaurant. “The owner made banh xeo like that big one, but not crispy – so soft. I don’t like it,” Ha says. But Lau was being treated badly there, so in 2002 they decided to start their own restaurant and Ha spent a month developing her own banh xeo recipe.
“Sometimes in the night my husband and my children [were] sleeping but I was cooking; I did it again, again, again, and after that I got a very good recipe.”
Looking around Thanh Ha 2 today almost everyone, including Ha’s brother (who is dining with his family a few tables away), is eating banh xeo.
But that’s not the dish Ha’s best known for. The sign out the front of her casual Victoria Street restaurant says “Banh Cuon Thanh Ha 2”, although its name is simply Thanh Ha 2.
“She’s known for [banh cuon]. When people talk about her, it’s that,” says her daughter Lisa.
The dish, originating from Northern Vietnam, is a steamed rice paper roll filled with minced pork and wood-ear mushrooms, served with fried shallots and a nuoc cham dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chili. Ha rolls the noodle-like fermented rice sheets by hand, a technique she learnt during her four years in the Galang Refugee Camp in Indonesia.
When she arrived in Melbourne, she couldn’t find banh cuon made from scratch; most kitchens used store-bought rice paper. And fresh banh cuon is still hard to find in Melbourne today. Before she put it on the menu at Thanh Ha, she’d served it at a stall as part of Melbourne’s Vietnamese New Year festival. She said the ensuing demand from the local Vietnamese community for the freshly made dish was overwhelming. It’s the dish that continues to bring Melbourne’s Vietnamese diaspora to Thanh Ha 2 today.
Ha started her career as a biology and chemistry teacher in Ben Tre, a coastal province in Vietnam’s south. There she met and married Lau, a teacher, and a solider in the anti-communist Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
Following the Vietnam War, in the late ’80s, the new communist government began threatening soldiers who had supported the other side. So, with nine-year-old Jenny and four-year-old Lisa in tow, Ha and Lau fled Vietnam in 1989. (Ha was the first of her nine siblings to leave.)
The family boarded an illegal boat from Vietnam to Indonesia with 33 other adults and children. The trip took five days. “At some point the boat broke down. A little part of the motor broke off and mum and the other women used the thread from their clothes to wrap around [the broken part] and get it going again,” Jenny says.
In the refugee camp, Ha met a woman who once owned a banh cuon shop in Vietnam. She taught Ha how to make the rice paper and prepare the rolls. To earn money for food rations, Ha opened a roadside half-hairdresser, half-banh cuon shop, called Thanh Ha.
Despite the number two above the door on Victoria Street, this is not the second Thanh Ha. In fact there have been four spread across Vietnam, Indonesia and Melbourne over 40 years. The first was in Ben Tre in 1978. It was a hairdresser with her sister-in-law, Thanh, who has since passed away.
“Everywhere she opens a business she calls it ‘Thanh Ha’,” says Jenny. “It reminds her of her humble beginnings.”
Thanh Ha 2
120 Victoria Street, Richmond
(03) 9421 6219
Mon to Sun 11am–10pm