By Kathy Hunt
If you live in or near a major city or a Vietnamese community, you've no doubt witnessed the bánh mì craze. Known as the Saigon, Mekong or Vietnamese sub, as well as a Vietnamese po' boy, hoagie or pork roll, this hearty sandwich has captured the hearts -- and stomachs -- of chefs and diners around the country.
Bite into a crispy bánh mì and you'll soon see why people have fallen in love with this traditional Southeast Asian street fare. Made from a long, sliced roll resembling a miniature baguette, the sandwich possesses a light, crunchy exterior that complements its zesty, moist interior.
Inside the bun everything from pâté to sliced ham to grilled pork loin to grilled lemongrass chicken to fried tofu can appear. Dressed with pickled daikon radish and carrots, fresh cilantro, chilies and mayonnaise, this versatile sandwich provides bursts of contrasting flavors and textures with every bite. Costing as little as $2.50 in the U.S., it elevates the status of inexpensive, fast food to a higher, healthier level.
At lunch or dinner, a bánh mì bi might feature roasted, shredded pork skin, or bánh mì xiú m ạ, pork meatballs smashed down into the bun. While fillings varied from region to region and cook to cook, strong-tasting meats, including whole, grilled small birds and whole sardines, remained the norm.
Although born in Vietnam, bánh mì has its roots in French cuisine. During their nearly century-long rule of Indochina, the French introduced both wheat baguettes and sandwiches to Vietnam. It was an introduction that would change Vietnamese cuisine forever.
What makes a great bánh mì? For Saigon native Luong Vo, who kicked off my sandwich tour in Vietnam, it's all about the fillings. "It has to be pork liver pâté and French ham -- jambon -- which has a little fat on it and hasn't been smoked or salted. You add soy sauce, salt and black pepper at the end for your saltiness," he says.
For me, though, the quality of the baguette remains key. It has to be fresh -- preferably only a few hours from the oven -- with a crisp, golden crust, and soft and airy interior. Tough or doughy bread ruins the entire dining experience. Likewise, I find that a thin coating of butter, followed by a light layer of good quality mayonnaise, keeps the baguette moist. These condiments also stop the bread from becoming soggy from the pickled vegetables and other, wetter ingredients.
No matter where you eat, your bánh mì or what you put between the slices of baguette, you'll enjoy an authentic taste of Southeast Asia with every bite.
Bánh Mì Thit
Makes 2 sandwiches
For the do chua:
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ cup white vinegar
1 cup water
½ pound carrots, washed, peeled and cut into 1-inch matchsticks
½ pound daikon radishes, washed, peeled and cut into 1-inch matchsticks
¼ teaspoon salt
For the sandwich:
2 (6-inch) whole-wheat baguettes, sliced
unsalted butter, at room temperature
good quality mayonnaise
4 thin slices bologna
4 thin slices Vietnamese or parma ham
4 thin slices smoked turkey
1 scallion, washed, dried and cut into matchsticks
do chua, to taste
¼ to ½ small jalapeño pepper, washed, dried, de-seeded and cut into slivers
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, washed, dried and roughly chopped
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
soy sauce, optional
1. In a non-reactive saucepan bring the sugar, white vinegar and water to a boil. Stir to combine, remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
2. Place the carrots and radishes in a large bowl and sprinkle the salt over top. Once the vinegar mixture has cooled, pour it over the vegetables, mix together and allow them to marinate for a minimum of one hour or overnight in the refrigerator. You will have roughly 3 cups of do chua to spread on the sandwiches and to serve as a side salad. Before using or serving, drain off or strain the do chua so that none of the liquid remains.
3. To assemble the sandwiches, spread the butter, followed by the mayonnaise, onto the interior of the sliced baguettes. Layer the bologna, ham and smoked turkey on top of the dressings.
4. Scatter equal amounts of scallion sticks, do chua, pepper slivers, cilantro and black pepper over the meats. Serve with an optional dash of soy sauce and the remaining do chua.
Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
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