4:50 AM EST
The Ultimate Sammich: Bánh Mì
Before Vietnam became a Socialist Republic it was the French colony of Indochine (1887-1954). Before the French, the region was ruled by a series of Vietnamese dynasties peppered with Chinese invasions from the north. Vietnam is bordered by Laos and Cambodia to the west and the South China Sea to the east. So why the history and geography lessons? How else am I supposed to explain why Vietnamese cuisine is so awesome?
Admittedly it was the food that brought me to Vietnam in the first place as I attempted to track down the ultimate recipe for phở. True, a sordid affair involving rượu rắn (snake wine), the punishing jungle heat, and Duran Duran kept me there longer than anticipated but I learned to truly appreciate how French techniques, Chinese dishes and an astounding variety of fruits, vegetables and seafood come together to form one of the most sophisticated, interesting and healthy cuisines. In my best-selling socialist primer on meat cookery, Thịt và Cháy, I included a recipe for Bánh Mì, an excellent example of Vietnam’s intersecting culinary traditions and quite possibly the world’s best sandwich.
Bánh mì simply means bread and in Vietnam bread is of the French variety. Made from a mixture of wheat and rice flours, Vietnamese breads have a thin, crisp crust. But don’t worry – I’m going to teach you a trick so you can prepare authentic bánh mì at home using good 100% wheat bread. Other French ingredients working their way into bánh mì include pâté and mayonnaise. Pickled vegetables and chili, also typically found in bánh mì, were arguably brought to Vietnam by the Chinese. Papaya* and all those wonderful fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, basil) are pure Vietnamese.
In Vietnam bánh mì is a popular street food and as such, there are as many variations as there are vendors. I’m only offering you a series of suggestions…follow your taste buds!
• French baguette (avoid “rustic” or whole wheat breads)
• Water-filled spray bottle
Replicate French-Vietnamese bread using French bread. Preheat your oven to as hot as it will go – usually somewhere around 500°. Cut your baguette in half. Use a fork to scrape out the bulk of crumb to make room for the fillings later on. Next, place the baguette on a baking sheet then, using a spray bottle, mist the exterior of the baguette and transfer to the hot oven. Bake for 5 minutes or until the crust becomes super crispy/brittle.
• Giò lụa
• Vietnamese pork chop (for recipe, click here)
• Fried egg
Giò lụa is also known as Vietnamese ham and is sold wrapped in foil (which replaced banana leafs in Vietnamese-American communities) at Asian groceries. It has a delicate pork flavor and a light, springy texture.
Many other meat products – in the French and Asian traditions, mostly pork – are also used in bánh mì including pork liver pâté and cold cuts. Bon Appétit has a nice recipe for Vietnamese pork meat balls available here. Baoguette Café (37 St. Mark’s Place, New York, NY) even offers a “sloppy bao”, a spicy Asian twist on sloppy Joe.
• Cucumber, peeled and juilenned
• Đồ chua (pickled carrot & daikon; for recipe, click here)
• Jalapeño, seeds removed and cut into thin rings
These are the classic toppings, at least for bánh mì served in the United States. Don’t have time to make đồ chua? Simply julienne some carrot and daikon (white radish), salt, and let sit 15-20 minutes before draining and mixing in a bit of rice vinegar and a pinch of sugar.
• Cilantro, cut into individual sprigs
• Thai or holy basil, leaves only
• Mint, leaves only
• Fried shallot (hành phi; available at Asian grocery stores)
A variety of fresh herbs is a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine. Cilantro, basil, mint and sawtooth herb are all common but use what is fresh and, most importantly, use what you like. Italian basil can substitute for Thai or holy basil but it doesn’t have the characteristic Vietnamese flavor of anise.
• 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
• 1 tablespoon Sriracha
• 1 teaspoon fish sauce (nước mắm)
• Minced scallion
Mix ingredients together and adjust to taste. Double (or triple) recipe as necessary. Slather your faux-Viet baguettes with this spicy sammich magic.
*Papaya is nasty and the one food, the ONLY food I refuse to eat. For this reason I am not including it as an optional bánh mì ingredient. Because, like I said, it’s nasty!
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