Friday, February 8, 2013

Banh Mi

Last year's postSpecial Dinner - Chicken Gruyere and Fig in Puff Pastry

This is an installment in my "famous sandwiches of the world" occasional and erratic series.  Banh Mi (banh mee) is a famous Vietnamese sandwich with distinct French influence.  I'm a Banh Mi fanatic and search it out at restaurants wherever I go, so I've had plenty of experience with great and less-than-great examples.  At its best, it's a sublime combination of flavors and textures.  It's deceptive because the assembled sandwich seems pretty simple, but it's the quality, preparation (and proportions) of the individual ingredients that makes all the difference.

The essential ingredients of a Banh Mi sandwich are as follow:  a light, crisp french roll or baguette, mayonnaise, meat (char siu pork is common), pickled carrots and daikon radish, cucumber, cilantro, and jalapeno.  Some traditional Banh Mi also include pate but I decided against it to make the sandwich lighter and because a lot of people don't like pate. Banh Mi can also be made with roast pork, chicken, or even tofu if you so desire.  The reason why I like Banh Mi so much is the interplay of flavors and textures - crisp bread, creamy mayo, rich meat, crunchy tart vegetables, and the warmth of the jalapenos.  Interestingly, the jalapenos don't taste very hot at all even though they're raw - I think it's partially because they're seeded and partially because of all the other ingredients.  You can spice it up further by adding some Sriracha sauce, one of the uber-trendy ingredients you see in restaurants these days.  Sriracha is a hot chili sauce from Thailand that's closely associated with Vietnamese foods, and readily available in the Asian aisle of your grocery store.  I like to serve it on the table so each person can add it to their liking.

Daikon radish is the other unusual ingredient - a very large, white Asian radish that can be found in most grocery stores.  It resembles a giant carrot in shape.  Because they're so big, I bought one that was just a partial and it was plenty.  It's crunchy but very mild compared to regular radishes.  The taste somewhat reminds me of jicama, if that's at all helpful.

Since we had invited friends for dinner and they had never had Banh Mi sandwiches before, I decided to go all out and even made homemade mayonnaise.

You certainly don't have to do that, but I included a recipe here in case you want to (it's actually very easy).  I made char siu pork a day in advance in a slow cooker, then brought it to room temperature over very low heat the next day.  (Be sure to drain the meat for a moment before adding it to the sandwich or you'll end up with a pretty messy sandwich.)

Finally, I made the carrot and daikon pickles an hour in advance and sliced the fresh ingredients. That's what makes Banh Mi so great for entertaining - all the ingredients can be made in advance and the sandwich is served at room temperature.

A note about the bread - Vietnamese baguette is light and crisp, not chewy or rustic.  If you don't have a local Vietnamese bakery you can use any petite or regular baguette you find that doesn't have a hard crust and isn't heavy.  And about the meat - Banh Mi sandwiches usually contain meat with relatively strong flavor as a balance to the vegetables, but you can use any leftover meat you want.  As I mentioned, I chose to make Char Siu Pork but I think roast pork or shredded Char Siu Chicken (which I posted previously) would also be excellent. Finally, proportions are important - go lighter on the meat and heavier on the veggies than in a normal sandwich - no more than 50% meat compared to the vegetables.

click here for a printable recipe

Banh Mi
serves 4

½ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup water
¼ cup white sugar
1 large carrot, cut into thin matchsticks
1/3 daikon radish, cut into thin matchsticks
4 petit baguette rolls or a long baguette, cut into four  pieces (the bread should be light and crisp, not chewy or rustic)
Mayonnaise (good quality purchased or homemade*)
Your choice of Char Siu Pork*, roast pork, cooked chicken, or tofu, sliced and at room temperature
½ English cucumber, thinly sliced
4 sprigs fresh cilantro leaves
1-2 jalapenos, seeded and cut into thin rings
Sriracha sauce

Place rice vinegar, water and sugar into a saucepan over medium heat, bring to a boil, and stir until the sugar has dissolved, about 1 minute.  Allow the mixture to cool. Pour the cooled vinegar mixture over the carrot and radish in a bowl, and allow to stand for at least 30 minutes.  Drain after the vegetables have marinated.

Slit the bread lengthwise, and then use your fingers or a bread knife to hollow out the insides, making a trough in both halves. Generously spread the inside with mayonnaise. Layer in the cucumber slices, meat, carrot and radish, cilantro leaves, and jalapeno rings.  Note: go sparingly on the meat; the vegetables should be 50% or more of the filling.

Serve with Sriracha sauce to be added to the sandwich by each diner as desired.

* See recipes at the links above in the blog post

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