Hunger Management

Recipe: Vietnamese-style sandwich banh mi

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 27, 2013

Sometimes my friends and I discuss hypothetical food questions after a meal.

One of these is which cuisine we would pick if we could eat from only one for the rest of our lives.

I cannot imagine why anyone would choose any cuisine other than Japanese but that is my personal bias. It is elegant and mass, its repertoire wide and deep. Home-style or restaurant style, it always satisfies.

But truth be told, I could make a strong argument for Vietnamese cuisine also.

I have been hooked on the food since I had my first taste in my teens.

My parents were very enamoured of a Vietnamese restaurant at Fort Canning and would take us there often.

Spring rolls with a crisp, net-like skin were part of the initiation into this vibrant cuisine.

We plopped the rolls in soft lettuce leaves and before rolling up into a parcel, pressed mint and basil leaves in them. Then, we dipped the rolls into nuoc cham, a dipping sauce made with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and water.

Later, while studying in the United States and Australia, I was able to explore more of the cuisine.

Fresh herbs are a big part of the appeal, but so is the balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy in Vietnamese food.

I lapped up bowls of pho and watched my Vietnamese friends make it from scratch at home. My friend's mother makes an extremely good banh xeo, turmeric tinted rice flour pancakes studded with prawns.

There is also the Hanoi speciality cha ca la vong, chunks of fish cooked with dill and shrimp paste that is fresh and loaded with umami.

At home, I simmer pork in caramel and coconut water to make thit heo kho, a comforting homespun dish with complex flavours, or make a quick marinade of fish sauce, lemongrass and garlic for pork chops, to be served over blanched rice vermicelli tossed with shallot oil, for a cheat's version of bun thit nuong.

Through it all, I have never been able to shake my obsession with banh mi, Vietnamese- style sandwiches.

The name means bread and the sandwiches have French colonial influences.

Banh mi are made using Vietnamese-style baguettes. The crumb has an airy, almost brittle texture because some of the wheat flour is replaced by rice flour, which does not develop chewy strands of gluten in the bread.

The cold cuts, some in shades of red and pink not found in nature, replicate French charcuterie. Even do chua, the daikon and carrot pickles that make the sandwich so delightful, are a Vietnamese take on pricey cornichons, little pickled gherkins.

It is fusion food before the word, when applied to food, made people shudder.

There are many variations and although I like banh mi thit, made with pork cold cuts, a recent lunch at a friend's place showed me how good a chicken version can be.

Although the recipe looks long and sounds laborious, it is not. All it takes is a little organisation.

About three days before making the sandwiches, slap together the pickles and let them sit in the fridge until they get crisp and soak up with tart and sweet flavours from the pickling juice.

The night before, marinate the chicken pieces.

Then, it is really just a question of assembly. In fact, a banh mi party is not a bad idea. Just lay out all the ingredients and let guests make their own.

Some banh mi shops will sprinkle some Maggi Seasoning before wrapping the sandwiches up. The dark soy-like condiment is made differently in different countries and adds a hit of umami to food.

The ones sold here state on the label that the sauce does not contain added monosodium glutamate, implying that any MSG would be naturally occurring. I think it adds a little something to the sandwiches but leave it out by all means.

After all, with pate, mayonnaise, grilled chicken, pickles, cucumber, chilli and coriander, the banh mi is already one heck of a flavour bomb.

I could eat one every day of my life.

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