Banh Mi

In Making Food on June 1, 2010 at 10:28 am

Week 15
Banh Mi

Banh mi: the food that single-handedly turned me into a city girl.

One of the many (many) things I love about living in Chicago — about living in any big city really — is the richness, the variety, the sheer mind-blowing scope of stuff to eat. From locally sourced meat, produce and cheese to cheap-as-hell, hole-in-the-wall ethnic snacks, this city’s got it all. I’ve lived here for a few years now, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen even a fraction of what Chicago’s got on its collective dinner plate. I’ve got a long list of stuff to explore: Polish baumkuchen, Taiwanese xue hua bing, Indian paper masala dosa. But I’m not sure if anything’s going to replace banh mi — Vietnamese sub sandwiches — at the top of my most-loved-ethnic-foods list.

I’d been hearing about this tiny Vietnamese sandwich shop for a while. People kept asking if I’d been there, then rattling off numbers. My favorite’s #2. You’ve got to try the #4. The #11 is good enough to turn you vegetarian. (Doubt it.) And if you buy five, you get one free. Finally, I clambered aboard the Brown Line and set off for Nhu Lan Bakery; when I got there, I ordered the #1 (where else to start?). And it, quite simply, made me want to finally change my driver’s license and maybe even get a Chicago landline. If banh mi were on the menu, I was here to stay.

A kind of mash-up of Vietnamese and French influences, banh mi can refer to either the actual sandwich or the mini baguette it’s made on. No matter what the main protein — marinated tofu, chicken, pork, pate, ham, scrambled egg or headcheese — banh mi are always topped with lightly pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro leaves, thin slices of jalapeno pepper, and mayonnaise, and are served on a crisp, airy baguette. Made from a blend of rice and wheat flours, the Vietnamese baguette is lighter in weight and texture than its French counterpart, making for a perfect sandwich roll. In addition to the prepared sandwiches, pates, spring rolls, Vietnamese iced coffees, bubble teas, and whacked-out drinks Nhu Lan offers, they also sell hundreds of these baguettes each day. They’re three for a dollar. And when you buy three, they give you two free. So one day, I ponied up a buck, loaded up five baguettes, and headed home to try my hand at my own banh mi.

In a cereal-sized bowl, stir together 1/2 cup rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon salt until the sugar and salt are mostly dissolved. Grate 2 medium carrots and 1 large daikon (or shred them in the food processor), add them to the seasoned vinegar, and toss to coat thoroughly. Let stand, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the rest of the fillings.

Finely mince a bunch of green onions. Take about 1/4 cup of the onions, and mix with 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 1 to 2 tablespoons sriracha, or to taste. Cover and store in the fridge until you’re ready to assemble the sandwiches.

Take the rest of the onions, and throw them into a large bowl. Mince two cloves of garlic and a 1/2-inch chunk of ginger, and add them to the bowl. Finely chop a healthy fistful of basil — you’ll want about 1/4 cup chopped — and throw that into the bowl too, along with 1 tablespoon fish sauce, 1 tablespoon sriracha, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon each of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add 1 pound ground turkey thigh*, and mix until the ingredients are thoroughly combined. At this point, if you like symmetry and neatness, you could shape the meat mixture into neat balls or patties.

Coat a large skillet or frying pan with peanut oil — you could also use canola or sunflower — and add a dash of toasted sesame oil for flavor. Once the oil’s heated and shimmering, add the meatballs or patties if you made them. If you’re like me and didn’t have the time/patience/will to make nice shapes, spoon the meat mixture into the pan, then flatten it into patty-like shapes with the back of your spoon. (It’ll taste the same, I promise.) Don’t crowd the pan too much; you may have to do this in two or even three batches, depending on how big your pan is.

Cook until the patties are nicely browned, and just starting to caramelize, on both sides, about 5-7 minutes total. As the patties finish cooking, remove them to a paper-towel lined plate to drain a bit.

Once you’ve got all the patties cooked, you’re ready to assemble. Split the banh mi baguettes in half, and spread them liberally with the green-onion-sriracha mayonnaise. Stuff a few patties in, then top generously with the pickled daikon/carrot mixture, some thinly sliced or finely chopped jalapenos, and whole cilantro leaves.

Then call me when you’re ready to move to Chicago.

* While I used ground turkey thigh, because that’s what was on sale at the store, you could certainly substitute ground pork, ground chicken breast, or ground chicken thigh (or a combination). You could also take whole proteins and marinate them, though you’d have to play around a bit with a marinade recipe.

  1. Heavens this looks amazing and it has been added to my list of reasons to move back to Chicago. Any ideas of how you’d adapt the recipe using tofu though? I’m trying to make the veggie leap.

  2. What if you pressed the tofu (a la the Pad Thai recipe), then marinated it in the ginger, garlic, fish sauce, basil, sriracha, sugar, salt and pepper? Maybe add some soy sauce and lime juice to boost the liquidy component? I think that’d be rad.

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