Vietnamese food has been given the label of “The Next Big Cuisine” for a few years now, it’s been hovering along the edges of mainstream recognition but whilst you can get a Thai Green Curry or pad thai from the ready meals section of Supermarkets or your nearest gastropub, Vietnamese food hasn’t quite made it there yet. I mean, you still can’t readily get, say beef pho in the supermarkets (although there is something similar). It’s a cuisine which is generally quite low-fat so whilst there may be heat like what you’d find in Thai cooking, there isn’t so much coconut milk used thus making it a lot less dense. Plus, the emphasis is on fresh herbs to really bring out the best in food and I absolutely adore it. Very clean, simple flavours of hot and sometimes sour, it’s a cuisine which deserves a lot more recognition. That said, it’s slowly beginning to catch on; There are a few more places which offer pho (I had one very recently in Birmingham Chinatown and it was pretty good), but with the help of the street food scene (especially in Londinium), the banh mi is really beginning to take off.
One of the best things the French ever left the Vietnamese (after years of French colonial rule) was the baguette, which is very important when making a Banh Mi (pronounced “Bun mee”). There are some people of the view that Vietnamese baguettes are better than French baguettes – exceedingly crisp golden crust with the softest inside like a pillow. The Vietnamese add a bit of rice flour to the bread mixture which is what sets their baguettes apart from their former French rulers, but the result is a baguette that gives one of the distinctive features of a banh mi – A crisp crunch from the baguette as you bite into it giving that textural edge to compliment the combination of flavours from the filling, the last bite should be just as delicious as the first (as with all good foods) and given how there’s nothing we love more in this Country than a sandwich, it’s the perfect food to eat on the go. There are a few components to the one I made but again, as with all good food, it’s absolutely worth that extra bit of effort.
The Banh mi is effectively a Vietnamese equivalent of a stuffed baguette sandwich and as with any sandwich, there are many variations. In fact, you couldn’t just order a Banh Mi in Vietnam as there are so many variations, but for this post, I will focus on a Bánh mì thịt nướng – A grilled meat Banh mi. So, after looking up recipes from the glorious Andrea Nguyen on her Viet World Kitchen site, I made a start.
That said, I didn’t actually make my own baguette – I do have the ingredients to do so (Well, apart from a baguette tray to actually bake them), but in all honesty, a decent baguette will suffice. Plus, my bread making skills aren’t that brilliant and I would rather leave it to a professional. I wouldn’t really use a Sourdough either as it will be wasted on a banh mi (more on that later), but you don’t want a bread which will compete with the tonne of flavours you’re going to stuff it with later. I was very fortunate on this occasion because Tom from Loaf had “an awkward 400g of dough” left which was perfect for baguettes and well, if there’s anyone in Birmingham I’d like to make bread for my banh mi – It would be Tom!
Bánh mì thịt nướng actually means grilled meat banh mi and the grilled meat in this particular instance was a lemongrass pork which I make from time to time, usually to go with some rice vermicelli and fresh herbs for a nice light salad on warmer days. However, the meat if also very full-flavoured and thus perfect for Banh mi too. I got some (boneless) shoulder of pork steaks and marinated them in some light brown sugar, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, dark soy sauce, fish sauce and oil. The meat is ready to cook after a couple of hours of marinating and I wouldn’t marinate it for any longer than 24 hours, otherwise the meat will begin to cure rather than marinate. With the meat marinating away, I set about making the pickled daikon and carrots:
I absolutely love pickles, so I had to make a large batch of pickles because I knew that I would be stuffing PLENTY of pickles in my banh mi, but they’re also good to go with any grilled meat – Or just eat them straight from the jar as I do. Most Asian pickles aren’t necessarily kept in airtight containers as they’re not really preserved – They keep for no longer than 4 weeks in the fridge, but the idea is that they’re eaten on such a regular basis that you will be making them at least every 4 weeks anyway. In this case, I peeled a mouli and some carrots then cut them into lengths of no more than a couple of inches and about 5mm thickness – Any bigger and they would overpower the banh mi and any smaller wouldn’t give the right textural crunch you want (along with the taste). The ratio of mouli to carrot is up to you – I personally quite like the mouli but am conscious that it can give off a bit of a bitter, unpleasant smell which although doesn’t actually affect the taste of the pickles, it’s still not a pleasant smell which you should endure if you didn’t need to. Once the mouli and carrots have been cut up, they’re put into a bowl with a small amount of salt and sugar. Now, you need to scrunch the veg with your hands so that you’re almost kneading them, you basically want to use the sugar and salt to extract as much liquid from the veg as possible so keep going at it for a good few minutes until the veg gives out a pool of liquid and you can bend a strip of mouli or carrot end to end without snapping the veg strip. Once that is completed, rinse the veg with some cold water, drain and put into whatever receptacle you’re going to use to store the pickles ready for the pickling brine. For that, dissolve some sugar in white distilled vinegar – I also added some rice vinegar as it’s less acerbic then pour over the veg – making sure you cover all the veg with the pickling brine. You can eat the pickles after they’ve been steeped for an hour, but as I mentioned earlier you can keep them refrigerated for up to four weeks – but no longer.
With the meat and pickles done and happily marinating away, it’s now time to focus on possibly the most important ingredient for the banh mi – The bread. I’ve already mentioned earlier how proper Vietnamese baguettes are made with rice flour, which creates the perfect harmony in a baguette that is crisp and crunchy (though not necessarily crusty) on the outside whilst the inside of the baguette is as soft and delicate as a pillow. Not an easy combination to achieve and something like a sourdough baguette is wasted on a banh mi (more on that later). That said, I don’t think it’s too sacrilegious to use a shop-bought baguette for a banh mi, just make sure it’s not a really thick one that’s full of fillers, preservatives and air, you want a fairly rustic one that’s reasonably thin and flat. OK, what I mean is that don’t get one from Morrisons, Tescos or Sainsburys but go for one from M+S or Waitrose if you’re going to buy the baguette. Actually, I also need to give big props to Tom from Loaf who was due to sell some of his home-baked goodies the following day at Stirchley Community Market and very generously made a baguette just for my banh mi. Thank you Tom!
When it came to cooking the meat, most of the marinade was loosely wiped from the meat and grilled – it would be even better if you could barbecue it. the sugar in the marinade will caramelise to not only give the meat a nice brown colour and sweet edge to go with the rest of the ingredients in the marinade, it also helps to lock in the meat juices keeping it delicate and moist. I did try chargrilling it too, but found that grilling it meant an even caramelisation on the outside which is always good. On its own, it’s great in a summer salad with some cooked rice vermicelli noodles and fresh herbs. But in this case, it meant that all components for the banh mi were finally ready to be assembled.
I cut the ends of the baguette off before splitting the baguette in half lengthways, but you don’t necessary need to do so yourself – I like to do it to add some authenticity to it. Next, scrape out some (but not all) of the inside of the baguette. I know, this seems really wasteful but you can always keep it for breadcrumbs. Besides, you want to be able to close the baguette to hold all the filling and not let the baguette look like a pacman arched open with the filling falling out. Again, this is another reason why a sourdough would be somewhat wasted on a banh mi. I smeared a light coating of mayonnaise along one side of the inside of the baguette, and line the bottom with some sliced Vietnamese sausage (Giò lụa or chả lụa), you could even smear some Vietnamese Pâté (which is another reminder of banh mi’s French Colonial origins) but for this time, I used Vietnamese Sausage. Next, layer the banh mi with the pickles and then the sliced meat before finally topping with some chopped coriander and sliced cucumber. Personally, I really love coriander and the pickles so I packed in as much as I could. As I mentioned earlier, you should be able to close the baguette and a cross-section should reveal each layer clearly.
Finally, the taste test. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous because previously, only I or my family got to eat or try whatever I’ve cooked, but this time I was making it for people who haven’t really tried my cooking before. I mean, I know that I’m a good cook but it’s one thing for your friends and family to try your cooking, I was now going to let my food out on people who aren’t obliged to say nice things to me. One banh mi was made up at home for Paul, who had dropped enough hints over Twitter that he was willing to be a guinea pig and taste test for me, so I was only happy to oblige. For the rest of the ingredients, I packed them up and headed over to Stirchley Community Market to use one of Tom’s baguettes and others to try out. Once i got there, it was easy to assemble the banh mi given I’d done all the cooking and prep at home so it was down for people to taste.
I’m more than happy to report that everybody who tried it really enjoyed it – I believe I even got some people converted to banh mi’s as they’d never tried it before. Paul finished his banh mi and gave it 2 thumbs up and more to the point, even his young son Tom enjoyed it. I was so thrilled that I had a half banh mi which I made at home and was going to eat it when I got to the market but seeing how much Tom enjoyed it, I just had to offer it to him – Which he shyly accepted but I still got photographic evidence of him eating it!
Tom (from loaf) also enjoyed it and asked how simple they were to make. Well, I hope I’ve shown that banh mi’s are very simple to make – It may take a bit of effort in making the pickles and marinating the meat before cooking, but once that’s out of the way it’s no more effort than making any other stuffed baguette sandwich. And well, given Tom’s expertise in baking bread, there’s absolutely no reason why a banh mi pop-up shouldn’t be offered – You could do different marinated meats and even a smoked tofu one for vegetarians. Personally, I felt like it needed a bit of a chilli kick – some sriracha or even a few light drops of Holy Fuck sauce from the Ribman would have been great. But what you should get is a crisp crunch of the baguette and all the different components of the filling complimenting each other – in this case the slight caramel from the pork marinade with the hint of lemongrass and garlic, the sweet-sour tang and crunch from the pickled vegetables and freshness of the coriander. It’s a shame you can’t get a decent banh mi yet outside of London in this Country, especially as Vietnamese food still hast taken off yet. Yet when you consider how popular baguettes are for lunch and they can be with a few slices of cheap thinly sliced ham or a very light scattering of grated cheese with a couple of thin slices of tomato, cucumber and the briefest smattering of chopped iceberg lettuce, I have no doubt in my mind that once people try banh mi, they will love it. But short of having to go to London to try a decent banh mi, I guess you’ll have to try making it for yourself because they are absolutely worth the effort.
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