Bánh Mì — A Clash of Cultures, Now In Cahoots and Trendy

April 11, 2012

Food is our common ground, a universal experience.
~James Beard

Paninis, tacos, burgers, croque-monsieurs, BLTs, lobster rolls, empanadas, and gyros, all sandwich fodder, have been exalted earlier here. Each have their unique crust, mantles and cores. Bánh Mì is just another ambrosial meal settled between or under dough slices, all united in mouth. A Vietnamese sub, of sorts, and yet another food born of a sordid imperialistic affair…a tale of conquest, occupation and social inequity. Later, America entered the fray and matters may have worsened. Someday, while mistrust will linger, we will heal some, and breaking bread never hurts.

Bánh Mì, while generally a Vietnamese term for all breads, now implies a sandwich chocked with meats and friends. The French baguette was first force fed to Indochine during turbulent, often overtly rebellious, colonial days (1887-1954). Việt baguettes, though, now differ some and have retained their culinary autonomy. Often made with a combination of rice and wheat flour, these demi-baguettes tend to possess a lighter, golden crust and an airier not so overly dense interior. Again, fresh bread is the star — yeasty, thin-skinned with a delicate crackle but sturdy enough to handle the usual suspects. The rest is about balance with the innards.

Traditionally, bánh mì are made with chả lụa, a pork roll made with finely ground pork wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. The pork belly or butt are just a variation, but no less savory. As with most other fare, to assume there is some purist version of bánh mì is mistaken, even myopic. A little spread of black bean sauce, grilled pork, head cheese, fried eggs, aïoli, fried oysters, even the layering sequence are a few improprieties that come to mind — so, smite me, O mighty smiter!

BANH MI (VIETNAMESE BAGUETTE SANDWICH)

Việt baguette
Mayonnaise*
Fresh cilantro leaves
Pâté de campagne
Duck rillette

Braised pork belly, sliced or slow roasted pork butt, pulled
Tương Ớt Tỏi (chile sauce) or bird chiles or jalapeños, thinly sliced
Cured cold cuts (thịt nguội or đặc biệt), thinly sliced

Pickled carrots and daikon radish (do chua)*
English cucumber, thinly sliced
Nước chấm or nước mắm Phú Quốc (optional)

Slice the baguette lengthwise and hollow out the insides some, making a trough in both halves. Slather with mayonnaise on both insides. Lay cilantro on the top half of the bread with judicious smears or slices of pâté de campagne and rillette on each half. Arrange the pork belly slices on the top half along with the Tương Ớt Tỏi or chiles. Put cold cuts (thịt nguội or đặc biệt) on the bottom half, topped by the pickled carrots and daikon radish (do chua), and then the cucumber slices. If you so desire, drizzle ever so lightly with nước chấm. Close the hood and indulge.

MAYONNAISE*

4 large egg yolks, room temperature
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t white wine or champagne vinegar
Tiny pinch of cayenne pepper

1 1/3 C canola or grapeseed oil

Separate egg whites from yolks. Egg yolks contain a natural emulsifier, lecithin, which helps thicken sauces and bind ingredients.

Whisk together the egg yolks, mustard, wine vinegar or lemon juice, salt, and cayenne pepper in a medium glass or metal bowl.

Add a few drops of oil while whisking; then pour in the oil slowly, in a very thin stream, while whisking vigorously with the bowl tilted at an angle on a folded towel. The emulsion should become thick enough to hold its shape and appear voluptuously creamy. Be patient, because if you add the oil too rapidly the mayonnaise will break and turn soupy.

PICKLED CARROTS & DAIKON RADISH (DO CHUA)*

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 lb daikon radishes, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 t sea salt
2 t sugar

1/2 C sugar
1 C distilled white vinegar
1 C lukewarm water

Place the carrot and daikon radishes in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Knead the vegetables for a few minutes, expelling the water from them. They will soften and liquid will pool at the bottom of the bowl. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water, then press gently to exude extra liquid. Transfer the vegetables to a pickling jar.

In a medium glass bowl, combine 1/2 cup sugar, vinegar, and water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat, allow to cool to room temperature and pour over the vegetables. The brine should cover the vegetables. Allow the vegetables to marinate for at least two hours, preferable overnight. Keep in the fridge for a month or so.

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