Almost four weeks after my stove and oven broke, they still remain unusable. Now I could get myself really worked up about that fact, but I still need to figure out a way to feed my family. I’m happy that we have a grill, a microwave and now (a recent and very necessary addition) a single induction burner. But sometimes you don’t even need heat to get dinner on the table. Sandwiches are always a great way to go when you find yourself in this situation on a hot day. And one of the great sandwiches of the world, banh mi, will be on my menu this week.
Banh mi (pronounced, and this is as close as this non-Vietnamese speaker is probably going to be able to come, something like bung mee) originated in Vietnam during French rule, and both cultures are represented in this wonderful sandwich. You could think of it as one of the original fusion foods. From the French we get the crispy baguette (please don’t serve it on a sub roll), mayonnaise or aioli, and often pate. Vietnamese elements are the pickled daikon and carrot pickle, fish sauce, hot peppers and cilantro. You can play around with your fillings. A meat or protein of some kind is added, usually along with sliced cucumbers. It is crunchy and creamy, spicy and refreshing all at the same time. The combination of flavors and textures is a party in your mouth if done well.
One of the beautiful things about this sandwich is that in coming to America, it has stretched its wings, and people around the country are using the basic structure and making it their own. Tofu versions abound (although keep in mind that if you’re doing this to make it vegetarian, you’ll need to lose the fish sauce, which I think is one of the best aspects of a banh mi – those who have only ever smelled fish sauce and not tasted it are not likely to believe me on this); some use bbq pork slices, others use ham. I personally like mine with roast chicken and chicken or duck pate. You can play with flavors you like and make it your own and still be eating a banh mi.
Locally, Tyler’s has them, and Bistro Venable seems to keep a vegetarian version in rotation on many of their seasonal menus. Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese restaurant Lime and Basil on Franklin Street offers five different versions. But if you feel like making one yourself, here is how I make mine, with suggestions for variations:
My “Banh Mi”
The best French baguette you can find
Sriracha mayo (or however you’d like to fancy it up, garlicky mayo would be great)
Fish sauce (skip if you’re going vegetarian)
Roast chicken (or other protein; I’ve also seen people substitute avocado)
Pickled daikon and/or carrots (recipe below)
Pate (my preference is duck or chicken; you can buy a variety of pates from Southern Season and Whole Foods)
Slice the baguette in half and scoop out any excess bread if it seems too soft or bready.
Slather on some of your favorite mayonnaise. I simply add some sriracha sauce and a little salt to mayonnaise to taste and stir. Add a layer of the cucumber slices (they’re a little nicer if you peel the cucumber first, but do what time allows), then the jalapeno slices. This sandwich is not for the feint of heart. Jiggle the fish sauce onto it — you want to be able to taste it, but it is very strong so be careful not to add to much. Remember that you can always add more if you don’t feel you have enough. Next comes your protein. I use roasted chicken from a grocery store as the meat, but you can use whatever protein sounds best to you or whatever you have on hand. Next comes the slivers of pickled carrot and/or daikon, topped with the cilantro and then the pate is spread on the top slice of the baguette. This is a seriously flavorful sandwich if you add all of these things.
Warning: this is a very rough and tumble way of making the pickles, but also the easiest (unless you can find them pre-made, which you might be able to do at a local Asian store). To make enough of the daikon and carrot pickle for a few sandwiches, peel and cut the vegetables (about two of each should do) into matchstick sized pieces, sprinkle with salt and sugar and drain in a colander, then rinse with cold water and push down to get rid of excess water. Put about ¼ to ½ cup of sugar in a leftover jar big enough to hold the vegetables, add about a half cup of white wine vinegar and the same amount of warm water and stir to dissolve. Add the vegetables and close the jar and shake it up a few times. Let the vegetables sit in this for at least an hour. You won’t need much on the sandwich but they do give a nice sour flavor. Now, if all this seems like entirely too much work (and I understand how sometimes it would), I think a crunchy, sour, non-mayo coleslaw could stand in for this.