Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Bánh mì

Reading through Gourmet’s recent reports on the best street food worldwide, I thought about tacos and why Paris didn’t merit mention. It was, to be fair, hardly an egregious oversight. There are half a dozen falafel stands in the historic Jewish heartland of the Marais (most famous is the Lenny-Kravitz-approved L’As du Felafel), serviceable crepe stands in parks and tourist areas and forgettable filled baguettes on nearly every commercial strip. This limited quality and variety reflects a culture which is still adapting to changing eating habits. While the midday three-courses with wine is increasingly giving way to lighter and faster fare, excellence at lunchtime is somehow not altogether expected. And consuming a meal while standing up, walking down the street or riding public transport remains suspect.

But in the city’s outer arrondissments there’s an authentic quick eat with great potential to go mainstream. It’s even served on a baguette.

Bánh mì (literally sandwich on French bread) originated mid-century in Vietnam, then under French colonial rule. At first, it was a luxurious foreign import, a baguette lined with cured meats, butter and cornichons. But after France’s ignominious retreat post ‘54 it was transformed into a thoroughly local, immensely popular, cheap meal. Baguettes had remained, and the local paté was not a huge departure from the original. The Vietnamese touches came through in the garnishes—pickled vegetables (carrot and daikon) and fresh herbs—and the inclusion of some chili heat.

Still served at street-side stalls and mobile restaurants throughout southern Vietnam, the bánh mì also migrated west during the 1960s and 1970s, providing a taste of home (and entrepreneurial opportunities) for refugees resettled in southern California, Paris or Virginia. Here, it has undergone another series of adaptations, spurred by ingredient availability and acculturation. As well as the classic paté, fillings now include Chinese-style roasted pork, chicken, meatballs, even sometimes tofu. And some are experimenting with upmarket or avant-garde treatments. But whether in Belleville or Brooklyn, the bánh mì remains the quintessential lunch on the go: available for a handful of change in a fluorescent-lit setting ill-suited to lingering.

Real estate may be the only thing preventing the bánh mì from dominating lunchtime trade. Here in Paris, it can just be found in the two “Chinatowns”, each a good 20 minute journey from the city’s commercial heart. The physical proximity of Manhattan’s Chinatown to downtown offices makes the bánh mì more accessible to New Yorkers, though I’ve never seen one above 14th Street. And in London, the search for a bánh mì would likely extend until afternoon tea.

For now the answer—which also conveniently resolves any qualms about eating super-cheap meat—is to make it at home. But should anyone be looking for a new business partner, remember who gave you the idea.

Bánh mì

Outside of Vietnamese population centres, it’s almost impossible to find made-for-purpose baguettes: slim, light and constructed partially with rice flour. Here, though, otherwise inferior fluffy baguettes come into their fore. If necessary, crisp them before serving and/or remove a bit of the interior. And while I’ve only encountered chicken bánh mì with plain steamed meat, the marinade ingredients are all used in other Vietnamese poultry dishes.

Adapted from Food Woolf and The Traveler’s Lunchbox
Serves 2
Total time: 2-4 hours; Active time: 30 minutes
Special equipment: mortar and pestle

2 chicken breasts
1/3 star anise flower
1 large clove garlic
1 small finger ginger
Pinch 5 spice powder
Chili (dried or fresh, to taste)
1 heaping tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)
Splash rice vinegar

Sandwich and Filling
2 small carrots
1/8 cup rice vinegar
1 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cucumber
1 baguette
Mayonnaise (to taste)
Sricha chili sauce (to taste)
Small handful cilantro (coriander)
Lime juice

In advance:
Rinse chicken breasts, remove any skin and/or fat and place on a large plate or shallow dish.

Using the mortar and pestle, grind the star anise finely. Peel the ginger and garlic and chop the ginger coarsely. Add and grind. (You may find that coarse salt helps the mixture to coalesce) Mix in a pinch of five spice powder. If using dried chili, add to paste and grind. Fresh chili can be chopped finely and then combined. Stir in brown sugar, fish sauce and rice vinegar. Taste for a sweet-salty-sour balance.

Pour marinade over chicken, turning to coat. Cover and refrigerate.

Grate the carrot coarsely using a grater or food processor. Combine rice vinegar and sugar in a large bowl, adding about ½ cup body-temperature tap water. Stir to dissolve. Add carrots, stir and refrigerate.

Just before eating:
Heat grill or grill pan on a medium-high heat. Remove chicken from marinade and cook, turning when firm and cooked. Remove from heat and let rest for at least 5 minutes. Slice into cubes or strips.

Cut cucumber into long, thin strips. Slice baguette in half, opening up to make 2 sandwiches. Place desired quantity of mayonnaise in a small bowl. Season with Sricha and spread on bread. Drain carrots and add to sandwich, along with sliced cucumber. Tear or cut coriander into small sprigs, discarding stalks. Add chicken to the sandwich. Finish with coriander and a good squeeze of lime juice.


supertaxicab said...

OMG this sounds delicious. Just FYI, you got your letters transposed. At least in the US, it is spelled Bánh mì, not bahn mi.

Shira said...

Thanks for catching that! I know there's good Vietnamese food in Houston. What about Dallas?