I have a banh mi fetish. There, I’ve said it. After too many “meh” experiences (and stomach-aches) from Stumptown samples, I set out to make my own. My ideal? The crusty, spicy, sweet, chewy, meaty, herbacious monster sold at Saigon Banh Mi, combo sandwich shop/jewelry store in New York’s Chinatown. (You know what they say, nothing goes together like pearls and swine.)
My first foray was a banh mi canapé riff (mini-mi? banh mi slider?) for the ever-delightful and deserving Bruce Bauer’s 50th birthday celebration. I threw everything but the kitchen sink atop rounds of toasted white bread and results were good…if a visual mess. I also suspected the complexity (marinated and fried pork belly mixed with the pork butt) could be dialed back with no discernible ill effects.
←Tastier than it looks
Then Jade Teahouse & Patisserie moved into Sellwood and the impetus to make my own disappeared. They’re not classic, and in fact after one bbq pork sandwich I switched, at April’s suggestion, to their sublime Vietnamese meatball banh mi, and have never looked back. Yes, the veggies are awkwardly chunky, but the baguette…oo-la-la, tres jolie. And the spiced pork is light as air and bursting with flavor. Not to mention the warm vibe, great tea selection, $5 salad rolls and addictive sesame balls. If they’d always steam their bao instead of microwaving them? It would be my perfect escape.
But wait, this is all about “mi”.
A Sunday potluck cocktail party to warm the house of ethereal E. provided the perfect excuse to try again. And this time I did my best to document a recipe. Cyndi, Billie and Judy, this is for you! Remember, it’s all by feel and taste, so take the measurements with a grain of salt. (Or is it two?)
Simmer pork butt with spices until it’s fall-apart tender. Shred, marinate and fry the cooked pork, shred and marinate julienned veggies, and assemble. Whether you put them on Wonder bread, baguettes or kaiser rolls doesn’t much matter (imho); as long as the bread’s tender enough to bite through, crisp enough to support and hold the fillings, you can’t go wrong. Active cooking time is 1 to 1.5 hours. The more pre-shredded veggies you get, the faster it goes.
Cover a (4 lb?) pork butt / shoulder (as much as you get, you’ll eat, trust me) generously with cold water and add:
- 3-5 star anise
- cinnamon stick
- large chopped onion
- chunk of ginger
- 4 rough-chopped cloves of garlic
- a generous splash each of soy and fish sauce (nam pla)
- a rough cut jalapeño pepper
- whatever else you want to make the stock tasty. A stalk of celery and a carrot are fine, maybe even a bay leaf. Though I think star anise is critical, you can substitute it and the cinnamon stick with a generous pinch of Chinese 5-spice.
Simmer covered for about two hours, uncovering it halfway through if you have plenty of liquid and want to start reducing your soup (more on that bonus later). When it’s fork tender and pulls apart into shreds, remove from the liquid and cool.
Cilantro is critical, Thai (or plain) basil are good, and mint used sparingly would be nice. Simply clean and remove the biggest stems. Set aside. Peel, seed and julienne a cucumber. Twice I’ve done jalapeños, once plain and once pickled, and neither time did anyone eat them. So do what you think is best.
Pickle a melange of julienned vegetables: carrots are critical, daikon is classic. I had high hopes for a Fubonn (local Asian grocery superstore) tub of pre-sliced carrot and daikon, but found it too daikony and badly julienned. But their finely shredded green papaya? A cheater’s dream! Instant crunchy fabulousness. Cheat as you see fit, especially if you don’t have a wondrous knife or mandolin.
For about 2 cups of julienned veggies, mix in:
- Fish sauce (4 T?)
- Rice vinegar (quarter cup?)
- Juice of 1 lime (why lime and vinegar? Because I’m not sure which I prefer so I split the diff. You can use one, the other or both, lime is slightly more sour)
- Asian sweet chili sauce, found these days everywhere—even Safeway—5-10 “plops”. If you don’t have any, add 1-2 T brown sugar and 1 tsp chile sauce, such as olek sambal.
Taste and correct the balance of salty, sweet and sour. If it tastes yummy? It’s right. I keep the cucumbers out of the shredded veggies because of the water they give off.
Shred the cooked pork into medium-sized chunks when it’s cool enough to handle. The smaller your bread, the smaller the meat. Toss any chunks of fat, drain off liquid that’s collected. Assuming you have about 4 pounds of pork, mix with:
- 4 cloves chopped garlic
- Fish sauce (4 T?)
- Soy sauce (3 T?)
- The juice of 1 lime
- Sweet chili sauce (1/4 cup?)
Taste and correct the balance of salty, sweet and sour. If it tastes yummy? Yeah…you know.
Heat a frying pan with 3T peanut or canola oil. Dust the meat with cornstarch, toss, and transfer a single layer to the hot pan. Turn as it carmelizes (2-3 minutes), transfer to a paper towel, repeat til all the meat’s fried. Replenish oil if needed. Is frying necessary? Probably not, but I’m trying to duplicate the chewy, fried texture of the Saigon banh mi, and this was the least decadent way to do it. Would a sandwich be good and quicker using just the spiced meat? Yup.
The Secret Ingredient
And here it comes, the critical component………garlic mayo. All the trouble we’ve just gone through and it’s mayonaise? Sad but true. Without garlicky mayo, the whole thing would fall flat. Crush 2 cloves of garlic in a half cup of mayo,and spread it on anything you can lay your hands on.
While some claim bread is the key to a great bahn mi, my standard is simply that the bread not suck (too dry/hard to chew/crumbly). As long as it serves as a neutrally crisp receptacle for a massive amount of filling / topping, I’m happy. If you happen to be lucky enough to live near Jade, you’ll see Mom Lucy’s baguettes—simultaneously toothsome, tasty and ‘bite-able’—are the exception that proves the rule.
If you’re making a full-sized sandwich, err on the side of a softer…but crisp on the outside…bun that can mold itself around your fillings and hold things in place. You don’t want a rigid bread or they end up too dry. For the cocktail party I split and toasted up Trader Joe’s mini baguettes, about the size of a large breadstick, five to a bag. Perfect with a parchment paper wrap and a toothpick. (Keith ate my photo sample. I’d yell at him but it’s his birthday. Oh wait, I did yell at him. “Dude, seriously, you ate my prop?”)
Toast your bread, slather with garlic mayo, heap on meat and pickled veggies, slide in cuke, a few sprigs of cilantro and basil, smush together if it has a lid, “fluff it” if you’re trying the canapé.
Aside from the sandwich, here’s your reward for all your hard work: steaming hot, flavorful pork broth. Strain out the flavoring agents, add a bunch of watercress and boil til cooked. Or just eat the broth refreshed with lime and maybe some green onion or cilantro. Eating it makes you feel like you’re healing things you didn’t even know needed healing. In fact, I think I’m going to finish off the pot right now to try to stave off this sore throat. Sorry Bruce…I’d planned to bring it down to you.
Mmmm, better already.