Asked for reflective advice shortly before he died, the venerable rocker Warren Zevon thought for a moment, and then replied, “enjoy every sandwich.” There’s sage advice in that simple thought. Few things tell more about a chef than what kind of sandwich they offer, and the same goes for the choice a diner makes. Given the incredible depth and breadth of options out there, I’ll just come straight out and say that you’d be absolutely hard pressed to do better than an authentic, house made Banh Mi sandwich.
When we dive into sandwich history, invariably we come to the old saw regarding John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who lived in the seventeen hundreds, and reportedly ‘invented’ his namesake treat. Montagu, during an epic poker game in the winter of 1762, called for cold meat in between two slices of bread so that he wouldn’t have to break away from the game to eat. His culinary trick caught on, and subsequently, the thing began to be referred to as a sandwich – Now, all that said, there’s no doubt the dish has roots far deeper and broader than one game of five card draw.
Whether it’s a Reuben in Omaha, a torta in Mexico, smoked meat in Canada, vada pav in India, katsu sando in Japan, medianoche in Cuba, chacarero in Chile, or doner kebabs in Turkey, they’re all variations on the sandwich theme, and they’re all delicious – And none more so than a perfectly constructed banh mi.
Banh Mi is, of course, Vietnamese, with some foreign influence integral to the sandwich. The foreign would be French, who, like so many other empire builders, (Us Merkans, for instance), were eventually drummed out of Vietnam, but if they left some good behind, their influence on Vietnamese cuisine was undoubtedly it. Bread was non-existent in Vietnam before the French – Now baguette shops are ubiquitous throughout the country, (In Vietnam, baguettes are made from rice flour, by the way, so a real Vietnamese baguette has a delightfully light taste and crumb). Onions, potatoes, asparagus, and meat broth were adopted heartily, the latter leading to arguable the most famous Vietnamese culinary export, the joy that is Pho.
That said, don’t by any means assume that Vietnam was a culinary backwater prior to colonization – Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Vietnamese have always excelled at not only surviving, but thriving in good times and bad – A key part of that adaptability is the willingness to try and adopt new things – especially true when it comes to food. Vietnam and their largest neighbor, China, have cross pollinated culinarily for thousands of years. Everything from noodles and won tons, to chiles and corn made their way south from China and were adopted heartily by the Vietnamese.
That said, there are key aspects of Vietnamese culinary philosophy that color everything there, including the banh mi. At the core of this cooking is the balance of distinct, strong flavor profiles – spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. Per the Vietnamese culinary tradition, each flavor corresponds with an organ in our bodies – gall bladder, small intestines, large intestines, stomach, and bladder, accordingly. The mantra of five continues further – Vietnamese cooks strive to include five essential nutrients in each meal – Powder (spice), water, minerals, protein, and fat. The visual element of cooking is also carefully considered; white, green, yellow, red, and black are presented in a well balanced Vietnamese dish. Finally, a balance between what is thought of as the heating or cooling properties of various ingredients is considered – The juxtaposition of jalapeño and mayonnaise in a classic banh mi, for example.
That classic banh mi is far simpler than what you probably have tasted. Banh mi thit nguoi, sometimes called the special, (Dac biet), is a baguette, sliced in two and given a hearty schmear of house made liver pate – That’s how it was for many decades and still is, in many Vietnamese deli’s. Banh mi has evolved, however, to our great fortune. Nowadays, you’ll find subtly complex sauces, pickled and fresh vegetables, and proteins from tofu, to char siu pork, roast chicken, or grilled pork, and of course, beef here in the states. Almost any protein you dig will work, which makes banh mi the perfect vehicle for leftovers. The veggies vary as well, but almost always include chiles, cilantro, cucumber, and a tart-sweet pickled daikon, carrot, or onion. That fancier, loaded version became popular in south Vietnam, especially in Saigon, and it’s that version that has spread around the globe more than any other.
Two of the things needed for a classic banh mi are things that you probably don’t have laying around your kitchens – One you’ll have to make, and the other buy, or sub for. They are the daikon or radish pickle, and Maggi seasoning. The pickle is easy as all get out to make, and we’ve got a recipe for you below. That’ll need at least an hour before you use them, and a couple to a few are even better, so consider making that ahead of meal time. The Maggi seasoning is, frankly, pretty much pure MSG and sodium, although the recipe varies depending on where it’s made, (Maggi is ubiquitous in Asian cooking, but it actually originated in Switzerland back in the 1800s). If you have an Asian grocery, you’ll find it there, and of course it can be bought from Amazon as well. It comes in various sizes, from around 5 ounces on up to 28 and 32 ounce bottles – If you decide to try it, get a small bottle – A little goes a long way. I’m going to assume you don’t have Maggi, and as such, I’ll offer a sub that’ll work just fine and taste delicious to boot. Finally, we like a light cabbage slaw on our banh mi, so I’ll shoot you a recipe for that as well.
For the Pickled Daikon.
You may sub regular radishes if your grocery doesn’t have decent daikon, as ours did not when I wrote this post.
1/2 Cup White Vinegar
1/2 Cup cold Water
1/2 teaspoon Bakers Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Rinse and stem radishes, then slice into 1/8″ thick rounds. If you use daikon, slice those into matchstick size, and the same goes for carrots if you decide to go that route – Use the same brine on all three options.
Combine all remaining ingredients and stir briskly to dissolve salt and sugar.
Place radishes in a non-reactive container, cover with the brine and allow to sit for 1 to 4 hours prior to use.
For the Slaw
2-3 1/4″ thick slices Green and Red Cabbage
1 small Carrot
1-2 slices Sweet Onion
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
Pinch of Sea Salt
Slice the carrot and onion – Onion into thin slivers, and carrot into match stick size.
Rough chop the Cabbage slices.
Transfer all to a mixing bowl, add the vinegar and salt and toss to coat.
For the Sauce
1 Cup Mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dark Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Cider Vinegar
3-5 drops Fish Sauce
1-2 drops Worcestershire
Combine and thoroughly whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes prior to use.
For the Banh Mi
1/2 Pound Protein of choice
3-4 Jalapeño chiles
5-6 sprig Cilantro
Banh Mi Sauce
For whatever protein you decide on, (we used beef for ours), slice very thin.
Cut baguette into roughly 6-8″ long chunks, then slice in half. It’s customary to take the soft gut of the bread out, leaving more room for goodies.
Stem and seed Jalapeños, then slice into very thin rings.
Slice cucumber into very thin rings.
Rough chop cilantro.
Arrange all the goodies so that each person can load their own banh mi.
Put a generous amount of the sauce on both sides of the baguette, then layer up, starting with your protein and ending with the slaw.
Now, you’ve got your balance of flavors and colors, (The Soy in your Sauce handles the black, btw), and you’ll make all your organs happy!
Fold ’em up and dig in.
Goes great with a local lager or pilsner.