Turmeric Fish Bánh Mì

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
Coriander leaves
Mint leaves

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.

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  • Avatar
    Reply Food Urchin February 7, 2017 at 11:44 am

    I love the stories that surround your constant quest for the perfect sandwich. Do you suffer from indigestion on planes a lot?

    Also, must have a banh mi soon.

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves February 7, 2017 at 11:59 am

      That’s what gin is for, Danny.

      • Avatar
        Reply Niamh February 7, 2017 at 5:13 pm

        Mwah hah hah – Helen is right Danny. Up your gin quotient. PS. lovely sandwich!

  • Avatar
    Reply Mabbaloola February 7, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    I love a good banh mi, especially because most baguette-based sangers do that scrapy roof of mouth thing and banh mi shouldn’t. I did some banh mi eating in Hoi An and while it was great I still think Keu’s are up there. And this looks like it too.

    (I’ve seen fresh turmeric in TFC too)

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves February 7, 2017 at 12:27 pm

      Yes! That scrapy roof of mouth thing is SO horrible. I must go back to Keu as I haven’t been for ages, and thanks for the TFC tip off *taps side of nose*

  • Avatar
    Reply Torie from chilliandmint February 7, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Great post that made me chuckle. I am a complete banh mi addicted and will cross town just to have the perfect one. I will check out Bahn Mi Hoi An in Hackney as have not tried those ones. I totally agree re the camberwell ones. Not very authentic but when there aren’t other options nearby you dive in regardless. I will have to seek out your bakery. Not come across the small baguettes in my south London hood – clapham/tooting/wandsworth vicinity. Right I am super hungry reading your post…I’m off to have lunch (what I just posted on my blog ;o) ciao

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves February 7, 2017 at 12:58 pm

      Where is your current London favourite? I too will cross town for a decent feed.

  • Avatar
    Reply Gillie February 7, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Back when all the noise about Banh Mi began we lived in the depths of Alaska, with zero chances of getting my mouth around one. And so, after days of recipe mining on the web, I began. The bread didn’t come out 100% as to what folks were describing, but it was close-ish. That first bite of pork banh mi was heaven, and its been my favorite sandwich since. And have since decided that while the bread is important, its not the entire show, its the fillings, at least to me.

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves February 7, 2017 at 3:41 pm

      Yeah I think as long as you have some soft, white baguette, it’s fine. Just nothing too sturdy! I really love your dedication to this – a fellow sandwich adventurer 😉

  • Avatar
    Reply deborah February 7, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    Boy, is your post a welcome sight in the Inbox today–the rest is mostly news–enough said–PLUS I can study up on this POB thing before our April trip to London; I wouldn’t want to sound ignorant after all–lol
    Banh Mi are something I’ve forgotten about and certainly available here, so thanks for the reminder–and recipe–and research!

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves February 7, 2017 at 6:32 pm

      Thanks Deborah, that’s lovely to hear. The news is best avoided right now. Pob is um, well you don’t need to know about him haha. He’s just a little pal from the 80’s.

  • Avatar
    Reply James Sandy February 12, 2017 at 8:04 am

    I saw this and thought of you, the best ham, egg and chip sandwich?

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves February 12, 2017 at 10:31 am

      Ha! It’s a wonderful sandwich, I’ve written about it a few times. Try it if you can!

  • Avatar
    Reply Banh Mi Hoi-An London February 12, 2017 at 10:16 pm

    Don’t forget stir (quick) fried dill and onions and spring onions 😉

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