This upcoming March, I will be taking a long awaited trip across the world to visit both Thailand and Vietnam for the first time. For as long as I have been cooking food, the cuisine of those two nations have been giving me such extreme wanderlust. I have desperately and frequently sought out authentic South East Asian dishes at many institutions here in Seattle to help feed the cravings for their food and culture.
At some point, I decided that good enough wasn’t good enough.
I have to feel, taste, savor and smell the real thing. I need to see it all in person. Mostly, I just madly want to seek out new flavors and cooking methods.
Two weeks is not enough time to do all I want in these food mecca’s, but life is a marathon and not a sprint, so this small taste will hopefully lead to more bites.
My journey has started here at home. I wanted to better understand their ability to perfectly blend each of the five flavors our taste buds can detect: Sweet, Bitter, Salty, Sour and Umami. The challenge I face here in America, is that most Asian restaurants cater to American palettes only. Most notably, our preference of sweet over spice. Most Americanized Thai and Vietnamese dishes lean heavily on sugar for the base flavor, which is a real shame for those of us who would really prefer a better balance with more sour notes and heat instead. That being said, Seattle has a fantastic international district (“The I.D.”) including a very large Vietnamese community where authentic flavors can be found with a little effort. My fascination with authentic cuisine has forced me to get creative when a craving strikes and I am not willing to make my way to The I.D.
In an effort to create authentic meals at home I have picked the brains of my Asian friends and scoured the internet for ingredients that might be hard to find, but are critical to doing things the right way. Along the way I have found a few things that on their own are less than desirable, but in the company of a balanced recipe, make all the difference. My first great discovery in the past few years, was the ubiquitous fish sauce. Alone, its a punch in the face with its unrelenting salty, briny fishy-ness. But mixed with some sweeter elements and paired with some meats it becomes apparent how crucial it is to capturing those familiar far east flavors.
The big discovery for this Bánh mì recipe however, was from an unlikely source.
Kewpie Mayonnaise (A.K.A Creepy Baby Mayo)
I had long heard about the magic that is Kewpie, the Japanese mayo with a baby Kewpie doll on the bottle, which you’ve probably seen in Asian markets. This stuff is umami incarnate, thanks to a secret ingredient: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). This stuff makes everything taste better. It’s no wonder chefs from Chris Santos and Anthony Bourdain, to another one of my culinary inspirations, David Chang, love the stuff. Kewpie gets a serious boost thanks to its preference for using only egg yolks for a more satisfyingly rich flavor and a far smoother, creamier texture than american staples like Hellmann’s. Another change is that it’s made with rice vinegar rather than distilled vinegar, and lacks the addition of lemon juice, giving it a sweeter, less tangy flavor profile. (Its popularity in Japan really can’t be overestimated either, they even have nicknames for Kewpie mayo fanatics. I would guess it is similar to Ranch and Ketchup fans here in America.)
I had also gleaned from a few people in the know that it is a commonly used mayo substitute on the famous Vietnamese sandwich that I am making for this post. As a person with no strong feelings either way to regular mayo, I can tell you this stuff is AWESOME. I want to dip everything in it…okay maybe not that far, but it really is a class above the rest and if you are able to find some at your local Asian market (barring that you have access to one) it is worth the effort and slightly higher price tag.
For those of you unfamiliar with Bánh mì, Wikipedia states that it actually just refers to all kinds of bread or in this case a french baguette.
(From Wikipedia) The baguettes include meat and soy fillings such as steamed, pan-roasted or oven-roasted seasoned pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork, grilled pork patties, spreadable pork liver pâté, pork floss, grilled chicken, chicken floss, canned sardines in tomato sauce, soft pork meatballs in tomato sauce, head cheese, fried eggs, and tofu. Accompanying vegetables include fresh cucumber slices, cilantro (leaves of the coriander plant) and pickled carrots and daikon in shredded form. Common condiments include spicy chili sauce, sliced chilis, mayonnaise, and cheese.
Although the term bánh mì only means bread without any fillings, the term is used to refer to a type of meat-filled sandwich found in Vietnamese bakeries abroad, especially in US, Canadian, Australian, and French communities with substantial Vietnamese immigrant communities. In the Vietnamese language, the term bánh mì is not enough to describe the type of meat-filled baguettes. Therefore, additional words are added to describe the kind of fillings. For example, bánh mì xíu mại means a baguette with crushed pork meatball, Bánh mì pâté chả thịt means a baguette or sandwich with pâté, Vietnamese sausage and meat, usually pork bellies, since it is the most common kind of meat. Almost all of these varieties innovations made by or introduced and is often eaten in Saigon and is known as bánh mì Sài Gòn (“Saigon-Style” bánh mì), the most popular form is bánh mì thit (“thit” means “meat”). However, even in Vietnam, “a bánh mì for breakfast” implies a meat-filled sandwich for breakfast, not just bread.
But the real reason I adore these Vietnamese sandwiches…the price! Never have I found a more satisfying $2.25 sandwich than the ones that reside in the Vietnamese Deli’s that litter The I.D. In upscale neighborhoods like Bellevue, the sandwiches creep up to almost $5…and that’s feels like a ripoff, until you realize that Subway has a cheap menu slogan that rely’s on that exact price point. Sure its an 8″ sub vs. a 12″ sub, but the feeling remains the same, great food at low prices is cant miss in my mind.
These things are packed with flavor and never hurt your wallet. Best of both worlds indeed!
In March, I will be in Saigon for a few days that will no doubt be filled with more authentic incarnations of the legendary sandwich than the one I present to you today. As far as basic interpretations go though, this one, I have been assured, is fairly faithful to the ingredients and preparation.
I will be mega-blogging my food travels in South East Asia this coming March, but until then, I am hoping these little tastes of that culture will help hold my anticipation and cravings in check.
I hope you enjoy my Grilled Lemongrass Pork Bánh mì!
- Two 8 inch french sandwich rolls (preferably from a Vietnamese deli if you have access to one. Thank you Seattle!)
- 1 lb lean pork loin cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
- 1 cup lemongrass marinade (recipe below)
- 1 bunch of cilantro
- 1/4 cup of pickled daikon and carrot (recipe below)
- 1 english cucumber
- 1 jalapeno
- 1 Tbsp kewpie mayonaise (or regular mayo if you prefer)
- 1-2 Tbsp duck pate (optional)
- 2-3 thin slices of chả lụa (Vietnamese pork sausage/roll found in most asian markets, also optional)
Lemongrass Pork Marinade: (Adapted from Rasa Malaysia):
- 1/2 cup minced lemongrass
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 1/2 tablespoons ground black pepper
- 5 shallots, peeled and minced
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil/regular cooking oil
- 2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce
Vietnamese Pickled Daikon and Carrot: (Adapted from Simple Recipes):
- 2 pounds carrots (about 5 medium sized carrots), peeled
- 2 pounds of daikon radishes (about 2 large daikon), peeled
- 1 cup plus 4 teaspoons of sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 1/2 cups white vinegar
- 2 cups warm water (warm enough to easily dissolve sugar)
- About 5 pint jars
Directions for Pickling Daikon and Carrots:
- This process needs to be done at least one day in advance to allow the daikon and carrot matchsticks to pickle. I’ve let this particular batch refrigerate for 5 days, but 1 day should suffice in a pinch.
- Julienne the carrots and the daikon radishes. Cut them first crosswise into 2 1/2 inch long segments. Then cut 1/4-inch thick slices lengthwise. Stack the slices and cut them again into 1/4-inch thick batons.
- Place the carrots and daikon radishes in a large bowl. Sprinkle with 4 teaspoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of salt. Use your clean hands to toss the carrots and daikon with the salt and sugar until well coated.
- Continue to mix the carrots and daikon with your hands until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes. They are ready once you can bend a piece of daikon all the way over without it breaking.
- Transfer the carrots and daikon to a colander, rinse with cool water and drain well.
- In a large bowl mix together one cup of sugar, the white vinegar and the warm water, until the sugar dissolves.
- Pack the daikon and carrots tightly into clean jars. Pour over the pickling liquid to cover. Seal. Refrigerate.
- The pickles should sit at least overnight before eating; their flavor will improve with time. They should last 4 to 6 weeks in the refrigerator.
Directions for Lemongrass Marinade:
- This marinade requires no special equipment or lengthy instructions, simply mix all marinade ingredients well in a large bowl and toss pre-cut pork loin in the marinade and let sit at least 1 hour to overnight in your fridge. I marinaded my pork overnight as I wanted the marinade to deeply penetrate. If you are willing to wait, your patience will be rewarded, I promise!
- Once the pork has had sufficient time to sit and marinade, remove from fridge and let the meat come up to room temperature before grilling.
- Pre-heat grill on high for 15 minutes, then brush grill grates to remove any debris. Feel free to spray with PAM if you’re concerned with some sticking (or if using cast iron pan, pre-heat to medium high and turn that fan on, this stuff will get a little smokey at such high heat). As long as you don’t move the pork around too much, sticking really shouldn’t be an issue.
- After the 15 minute pre-heat time, lay the pork strips out on the hot grill and close the lid to keep that heat up.
- After about 2 minutes, start to flip the pork pieces that are seeing some good char on the bottom. Any remaining marinade can be dolloped on top of the pork so that it can start to carmelize on the grill.
- These pieces are fairly thin cut so watch them closely after the first flip as they will cook really fast. We dont want to dry them out so dont be too concerned if they arent all picking up those char marks from the grill grates. Remove pork from grill after about 4-5 minutes and let cool down completely.
Directions for Banh Mi:
- Once the daikon and carrots have become sweet and sour pickled overnight, and the pork is grilled and slightly cooled, begin to prep and assemble the rest of the Banh Mi. Pretty simple stuff the rest of the way! I prefer my meat to be cooled before sandwich assembly as that is how I have always had them in the international district of Seattle (Vietnamese neighborhood specifically), I assume this keeps the rest of the cool crisp ingredients at their best, without being heated and softened by the hot meat. I will be in Vietnam in exactly one month from now and I should have a better idea as to my authenticity (lemongrass pork aside)