I love to cook. I think about it all the time, what I’m going to cook next–what I’m going to do with that vegetable, bread or meat I just found at Guido’s, the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market, or my CSA. When I’m having dinner, I think about what I’ll make next time. The other night, a weeknight, I made the best short ribs I’d ever seen (sourced from Whole Foods in Greenwich, Conn.) — 1 pound in each rib! — in a Moroccan sauce over egg noodles with pearl onions — it took two days to make. I’m fortunate enough to have the time to cook like this and the inclination.
So I thought it might be of interest to share my current obsession, the Bánh Mì sandwich. We lived in Paris for three years, and probably as a result of being completely submerged in French culture, from time to time we’d head to the 13th Arrondisement — sort of Chinatown, to an enormous store, Tang Frères, where you can buy anything from Bonsai trees to rice cookers to soy sauce by the gallon. But my favorite part was the nameless restaurant just next door to Tang Frères. Why? Because they sold Bánh Mì — that’s it. They made them at rocket speed, to serve the lines that stretched down the crowded Chinatown streets. I would always order two: one for the walk to the subway, and one for home.
The traditional western sandwich is made up of cold cuts, cheese, some mustard, mayonnaise, and maybe some greens; usually the flavors are subtle and complementary. There is little better than the #1 Baguette Sandwich one finds at Bizalions: Gruyère cheese and Prosciutto Cotto ham on a baguette. With butter. And cornichons. It is simplicity, comfort, and a taste of France.
The beauty of the bánh mì, though, is that it’s an amalgamation of western and eastern cultures. The juxtaposition of the umami rich Maggi Sauce with the unique taste of cilantro and the sweet and sour bite of the pickles in a cocoon of French bread slathered with mayonnaise makes for a wonderful fusion of east and west. This is the yin and the yang of sandwiches. Namaste.
The Bánh Mì sandwich name roughly translates to wheat bread. The French introduced bread, baguettes in particular, to Southeast Asia in their colonial period. The most commonly used bread for this sandwich is a single serving baguette. Historically, they were filled with a variety of meats and vegetables.
As I began to plan my own sandwiches, I realized that I needed to find some more examples to review. Plus, I really like them. On a trip to New York, I sought out Bánh Mì Saigon, well known as a fine purveyor of the Bánh Mì.
Their version was traditional and wonderful, with its caramelized pork, crispy and sweet, and the requisite cilantro, cucumber, daikon and carrot pickles. There was a slice of a Vietnamese cold cut, which was quite tasty. Plus, and this may well be the best part, it was only $4.50. Fred — my 9-year-old son — and I ate them as we headed up to Astor Place for a late night movie.
Closer to home, we found ourselves at The Oakhurst Diner in Millerton, where we discovered a modern version of the bánh mì, almost a mash-up of a Reuben and a bánh mì and a little bit hipster. The roast pork slices were beautiful, there was a fair bit of mayonnaise, and a nice authentic addition of jalapeños. These two versions were quite different, which only serves to show that the bánh mì is not a fixed concept. One need not hew to any particular recipe to make a good example of this treat.
I wanted to make my own, and here’s what I’ve come up with. You can find any recipe on the Internet, of course. And I began there, but found myself circling around the work of Andrea Nguyen, author of The Bánh Mì Cookbook. (Hmm, wonder what’s that book about, I ask myself.) I got my copy at The Book Loft. Here’s the edited version of what you need to know to make the arguably best sandwich in the world.
One starts with bread. In the land of baguettes, the earthier and denser ones are preferable for general eating, as compared with the lighter and delicately crusted baguettes, the wonder bread of baguettes. Except for Bánh Mì. They work best with the lighter ones. A softer hard roll would work just as well, though not sliced bread.
You’ll need mayonnaise, Maggi Sauce (available at Guido’s and the Berkshire Co-op market), cilantro, cucumber, carrot and daikon pickles, and a filling. Jalapeños are traditional, but my boys don’t love that level of spice…yet. The filling turns out not to be as important as you might think — slices of roast pork, chicken pieces, ham, spreadable paté, even sauteed slices of portabello mushrooms will work. The other ingredients are more important in the makeup of this sandwich.
Working with the other ingredients is just assemblage, but you have to make carrot pickles. Fortunately, it’s quite easy. Julienne into matchstick-sized pieces one or two carrots. It’s easiest if you have a mandoline, but not necessary. (Come by The Chef’s Shop in Great Barrington, where I work part time. We carry a number of great mandolines; we can teach you how to use it.) It’s common to use daikon radish, a white long vegetable, but not necessary. Put your carrot and/or daikon julienned pieces into a bowl and sprinkle with salt and sugar. Mix it up for three minutes or so. You’ll discover they reduce in size and become quite pliant. Rinse well and add to an empty 1-liter mason jar, or something similar and able to be capped. Heat a cup or two of white vinegar (enough to cover the veggies) into which you’ve added a generous tablespoon of white sugar. When sugar dissolves, let cool and add to vegetables. Refrigerate. This step can and probably should be done in advance.
To make my filling, I marinated a small piece of pork roast — the shoulder works great — in a mix of Mirin, Miso, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and peanut oil for at least a couple of hours; overnight is best. Then I sliced it thinly, and cooked it briefly in a small cast iron pan — 1-2 minutes per side, tops. I then let it cool.
The assembling of the sandwich goes like this: slice bread in half. With a sharp knife, remove some of the bread from the inside of the both sides of the baguette by cutting parallel to the loaf — this gives you space for filling. Sprinkle some Maggi sauce onto both sides, then spread with mayo. (Maggi sauce is quite strong, be conservative.) Layer on your filling, and top with cilantro, cucumber, pickles and the top half of the loaf. Et voilà! Enjoy with a cold lemonade, iced tea or lager.
48 Avenue d’Ivry 75013 Paris, France
Bizalion’s Fine Foods
684 Main St # 3, Great Barrington, MA 01230
Bánh Mì Saigon
198 Grand St, New York, NY 10013
The Oakhurst Diner
19 Main St, Millerton, NY 12546
Barrington Plaza, 332 Stockbridge Rd, Great Barrington, MA 01230
The Chef’s Shop
31 Railroad St, Great Barrington, MA 01230
Guido’s Fresh Marketplace
Great Barrington, MA
Berkshire Co-op Market
42 Bridge St, Great Barrington, MA 01230