30 shades of herbs: the more, the better

By Ngoc Tai   January 21, 2023 | 02:00 am PT
Not just two or three garnishes, these crispy crepes are served with 30 kinds of jungle herbs at Cam Mountain, also known as the roof of the Mekong Delta.

Visitors can find more than a dozen vendors selling banh xeo, a kind of Vietnamese crepe, served with jungle herbs on the way to the summit of the 700-meter-high Cam mountain in An Giang Province. Most of them are centered around Phat Lon Pagoda. Instead of signs, each vendor arranges over a dozen baskets of fresh, wild herbs in front of their restaurant stalls.

At the busy tables of restaurants atop the mountain, servers place a plate of jungle herbs in front of you as soon as you sit down. Diners can get up to grab anything they want from the herb counter if there's not enough at the table. According to Hoang, one of the restaurant's owners, banh xeo is served with roughly 30 different kinds of herbs that were harvested in the forests that coat the mountain. Each kind has a distinctive flavor, and some are even thought of as natural medicines.

Bushes of jungle herbs surrounding banh xeo stalls is an iconic scene at Cam mountain. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Tai

Bushes of jungle herbs surrounding banh xeo stalls is an iconic scene at Cam mountain. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Tai

These jungle herbs surprise customers with their unique flavors. Sharp Bua leaves help balance the fatty taste of the crepes. Hoang said some of these herbs are even good for your health, such as Hoan Ngoc leaves, which are good for people suffering from arthritis.

In addition to their common sour taste, the many herbs are acrid, slightly bitter or sweet. Hoang must order in advance from families that specialize in picking jungle herbs to gather the ingredients, priced at VND30,000-60,000 ($1.28 - 2.56) per kilogram.

"These herbs are available all year round, but in the rainy season they're fresher and tastier," Hoang said. Many diners joke that the crepes are really a side dish since they are so overwhelmed by the number of herbs.

In the kitchen, Xuan Mai is busy with 14 pans cooking over fire. She just finished making two freshly made crepes and is placing them on a plate. As soon as she's finished, she pours more crepe batter into the pan after adding a little oil. At the same time, she rotates the pan so the crepe can evenly coat it. She then puts some raw bean sprouts and boiled green beans in the crepe. To the savory crepe she adds pork, stir-fried shrimp and cassava root. The vegan crepe includes tofu, wood ear mushrooms, and vegan fish swim bladder. Since all the fillings are already cooked, it takes only about two minutes for her to wrap up a crepe.

Xuan Mai is busy making crispy crepes, from a few hundred to a thousand each day. Photo by VnExpress/ Ngoc Tai

Xuan Mai is busy making crispy crepes, from a few hundred to a thousand each day. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Tai

While frying the cake, she turns her eyes to the pans with the finished crepes, which she immediately transfers steaming hot onto plates. She reveals that in the Mekong Delta, banh xeo cooks must follow particular guidelines, such as only using clean towels to wipe off the pan and not doing so frequently.

Mai has been in the profession for more than 5 years. Even when she has to fry 14 crepes at the same time, none of them burnd. For her, the work has become familiar.

"Depending on the layout of the kitchen, if I can move quickly between one pan to another, I can make a lot more crepes," she said. On a busy day, the 38-year-old woman can make more than 1,000 crepes.

Another special feature of the crepes here are their size. They're large with thin edges that seem to melt in your mouth. "In the Mekong River Delta, a woman who can make an evenly spread crepe with a thin edge will be praised for her skill," said Mai with a smile.

There are nearly a dozen vendors selling the same dish with similar prices here. A vegan crepe costs VND15,000 (64 cents), while the price for a savory crepe is VND20,000 (85 cents).

Diners often fall in love with these hot crispy crepes with thin edges. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Tai

Hot crispy crepes banh xeo with thin edges. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Tai

Having a hot, crispy cake with lots of veggies is perfect as soon as you summit the mountain, be it in the morning on a warm day, or at dusk on a chilly evening.

The Bay Nui (Seven Mountains) region is home to Cam Mountain, which is more than 250 kilometers outside of Ho Chi Minh City, in Tinh Bien District, which borders Cambodia.

The region actually has not seven, but more than 30 mountains, named and unnamed.

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