People get worked up about bánh mi, don’t they? All spittle-mouthed and red around their Pob-like cheeks. A major point of contention is the bread because the bánh mi is a product of French colonial rule in Vietnam, when the baguette was adopted but made lighter, somehow, with a famous, crackly crust and aerated crumb. People argue about how this baguette is made.
Some say lightness comes from the use of rice flour, but many argue this is rubbish because hardly any Vietnamese recipes contain rice flour and those that do never work. Also there’s the question of humidity, with many claiming the bread gets its texture due to high atmospheric humidity (and goodness knows it IS humid there, I have frizzy hair photos to prove it) but really, it’s more likely down to humidity levels in the oven during baking.
I say this as someone who isn’t a baker, so what the hell do I know anyway? I also didn’t eat any bánh mi when I was in Vietnam, because a) I was only there for 24 hours, and b) I was at the wrong end of the country (it’s a Southern thing) and my guide told me the bánh mi in Hanoi are ‘all shit and just for tourists, so don’t bother’.
What I do know about bánh mi, is that they’re a lesson in the perfect sandwich. There’s something crunchy, something soft, something pickled, something creamy or fatty… there’s heat and herbs and it’s all brilliant, providing you don’t expect it to blow your mind, in which case it will definitely blow your mind. In any case, it’s just a freakin’ sandwich. Here are three bánh mi experiences I can remember as I write this:
Best Bánh Mi Experience: Banh Mi Hoi An in Hackney. This place sells some of the best bánh mi in London and trust me, I have put the work in. Get the pork special or whatever it’s actually called. You’ll know when you get there. There isn’t really any seating and it’s cramped (unless it goes downstairs? I can’t remember) so be prepared for a takeaway situation.
Worst Bánh Mi Experience: Somewhere in the Vietnamese bit of Melbourne. Someone told me about this incredible bánh mi I just had to have so I did another ‘mad sandwich dash before the airport’ thing and by sheer brutal bad luck got a taxi driver who was total clown shoes. He got lost three times and chucked me out on a massive freeway after we had a disagreement. Anyway, I found it, ordered it, ate it, and it was shit. Then I couldn’t get a taxi back because it was a weird area and so I had to walk for two miles and got vicious sunburn.
Best ‘Bad but Good’ Bánh Mi Experience: Viet Café, Camberwell. You just know I go back for this all the time and I don’t even care who knows. The bánh mi is objectively Not Good with its pappy, part-baked baguette, overcooked pucks of ‘chicken satay’ and – wait for it – sweet chilli sauce but damn, does it hit the spot. The sweet chilli sauce makes the whole thing work, it’s sweet-hot gloopiness both lubing the dry chicken and bringing its own special brushstroke of filth.
Arguments aside, the bánh mi is quite simple, really, and anyway, if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to make a good sandwich. I made this as backup when a mate came around for lunch and I was recipe testing something else I knew wasn’t going work (but had to be done that way anyway for completeness) and he liked it, so I made it again, but better. This would be fantastic with fresh turmeric which is usually available EVEN IN MORRISSON’S in south London but did they have it this time? Of course they didn’t. Still, that makes the recipe a bit more accessible, I guess. Just use the ingredients you have to hand, guys; that’s what the Vietnamese did.
Turmeric Fish Banh Mi
This makes 3 sandwiches, or I guess one massive baguette which you could portion up. You want to find a light baguette for this, so leave sourdough out of it, because that won’t work at all (if you’re local, I bought these at Ayre’s Bakery in Nunhead). Also, it’s best if you cut the veg into thin sticks by hand – I have used a fancy julienne peeler in the past and it makes the strips too thin so they just flop in the pickling liquid and lose their crunch.
For the pickled vegetables
1 large carrot, cut into thin sticks
1/4 daikon, cut into thin sticks
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons caster sugar
Large pinch salt
Dissolve the sugar and salt in the vinegar over heat and pour over the vegetables in a shallow dish. Leave while you make everything else, stirring occasionally.
For the fish
300g firm white fish, cubed (I used haddock). Don’t be an arse – make sure it’s sustainably sourced.
1-inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated (grating leaves behind the nasty fibrous bits)
3-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed (yup, much more towards the 5 end of the scale myself)
2 tablespoons fish sauce (I used Three Crabs brand)
Zest of 1 lime
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
Mix the ginger, garlic, fish sauce, turmeric and lime zest and smother all over the fish. Leave for 20 minutes or so. Brush off any excess marinade, thread onto skewers then cook under a moderate grill for a few minutes each side (this depends on the size of your chunks, obviously).
For the sandwiches
3 small, soft, white ‘torpedo’ baguettes
1/2 cucumber, deseeded and cut into long strips
1 red chilli, finely sliced
Assemble by splitting the baguettes and pulling out some of the crumb (yes, I forgot), spreading with mayo, adding pickled veg, herbs, chilli, cucumber. Add the fish by putting the whole skewer into the sandwich, clutching the bread, then removing the skewer. You may want a squeeze of lime juice, but see how you go.