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East meets West

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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So there we were, sitting in wobbly plastic chairs in a little shop postered with Vietnamese pop stars and French tourism ads, munching on the sweet, sour, spicy, savory baguette sandwiches known as banh mi. "I ate these when I was a kid," mused a friend at the table, whose parents immigrated to the States from southeast Asia. "But my mom never made them; we always went out for them."


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This is the banh mi paradox: They're ridiculously easy to make, but because they're a street food, frequently sold from tiny storefronts selling not much else, they've been relegated to takeout limbo. 

[%image condiments float=right width=300 caption="Condiments for banh mi sandwiches."]

Of course, one of the central joys of going out for banh mi is the same as going out for pizza: the dizzying satisfaction of choosing between more toppings than you could ever cram into your fridge at home. At banh mi joints in the States, sandwich fillings generally include barbecued pork, grilled beef, roasted chicken, and (sometimes) tofu. But you can also get banh mi spread with stinky pâté, lined with slices of head cheese, plopped with scrambled egg, stuffed with meatballs, and draped with roasted pork skin.

"There is one sandwich in the Vietnamese repertoire and it is a tour de force," writes Andrea Nguyen in her lavish Vietnamese cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. A rare positive side effect of colonialism, banh mi are basically a Franco-Viet fusion dish. The French contributed the soft, chewy baguettes and the mayonnaise, as well as the pâté and an affection for beef. The Vietnamese (whose country was run by the French from 1887 to 1954) contributed the obligatory toppings that appear in nearly all banh mi: vinegary pickled carrots and radishes, fresh cilantro, sliced chiles, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Slap it all together with your choice of meat, and you're ready to munch.

[%image garnishes float=left width=350 caption="Garnishes for banh mi sandwiches."]

All that meat, frankly, is what keeps people from making banh mi at home. Everything else — the bread, the condiments, the garnishes — are easy to come by. But unless you cop out totally and layer your banh mi with ready-to-go deli cold cuts, that meat needs to be marinated and roasted or grilled, then cooled and sliced for serving.

If you plan ahead, you can prepare a big hunk of meat to keep on hand for, say, a week's worth of banh mi; this can mean roasting or grilling a chicken, roasting a leg of pork or pork loin, or grilling a marinated steak. (Baste the meat with a blend of soy sauce, sweet chile sauce, ginger, garlic, and peanut oil, and you're on your way to Asian flavor heaven.) But, sheesh, cooking that much meat is work. So here's a quick list of cheater ways to get your banh mi protein:

# Hit your local Asian grocery store and buy the premade, presliced, prewrapped packages of fried tofu, barbecued pork, etc. (Heck, while you're there, get a few banh mi sandwiches to go, too.)
# Head to a non-Asian supermarket with a decent meat department and pick up some of those premarinated kebabs all markets seem to have these days. (Marinated in Asian spices and sauces? Even better.) Grill or broil this meat (you may have to pull it off the kebabs and pan-fry it for even cooking) and you can have a variety pack of meats (beef, pork, chicken) to choose from.
# No marinated kebabs at that gourmet grocery store? Maybe they sell hot, gleaming rotisserie chickens; take one of those babies home (it'll cool on the way home) and slice it up for sandwiches. 
# If you're a big pâté fan, simply buy a soft, spreadable chicken-liver pâté and use that as your lone protein. [%image sandwich float=right width=400 caption="The final product: A small baguette spread with mayo, soy sauce, and fish sauce, then layered with meat, chiles, carrots, radishes, and cilantro."]
# If you're not a meat eater, fry slices of extra-firm tofu for your sandwich. Cook up a whole tofu package, drain the cooked slices, and stash in the fridge for future sandwiches.

Most banh mi recipes garnish the sandwiches with fresh cilantro, sliced jalapeño chiles, and shredded or julienned carrots and daikon radish marinated in rice vinegar. Some also call for strips of cucumber (either alone or tossed in the vinegar with the carrot and radish), lettuce, and rings of sweet onion, shallot, or scallions. 

As for the condiments, if you can't stand mayonnaise, replace it with butter or trans-fat-free margarine. The fish sauce tastes far better than it smells, but a sandwich sprinkled with soy sauce alone will still taste just fine. And yes, if you really don't want to bite down on a fresh slice of hot pepper, just skip the jalapeños. Nobody will call you a wuss.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate's managing editor.

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