On the weekend, I spent 2 days (and $50) making a pork roll that sells for $4.
It wasn’t just any pork roll. It was the roll with a cult following around the world – bánh mì.
An ode to bánh mì
Bánh mì is a Vietnamese culinary institution, and a culinary legacy of the French colonial era in Vietnam. It starts with a Vietnamese take on the French baguette made with rice and wheat flours, chunky pork liver pâté and creamy mayonnaise. Add handfuls of fresh herbs, crunchy pickles, and meat filling (3 types of luncheon meat, or grilled pork, or meatballs, or red braised pork). Finish with red chillies and a splash of dipping sauce or fish sauce (diagram showing bánh mì with luncheon meat below, borrowed from New York Times). The result is a hybrid of flavours that is somehow quintessentially Vietnamese, unexpectedly flavoursome, and addictive.
These baguettes are a popular lunch in the CBD, and a cluster of Vietnamese takeaway shops sell dozens and dozens of them to office workers. The people behind the counters work so quickly and deftly, their actions are like a stylised dance: cut baguettes, smear pâté and mayonnaise, layer meats, herbs, cucumber, pickles, a generous splash of savoury seasoning, and a random handful of chopped chilli – the degree of spiciness varies wildly from mild to painful.
I could go on about bánh mì for hours.
Making bánh mì, for you and for me
A leisurely Sunday lunch with friends was a chance to serve DYI bánh mì. I bought Vietnamese baguettes from a Vietnamese bakery, and made everything else from scratch: pickles (carrots, onions, daikon), pâté, mayonnaise, braised pork belly, and sweet-savoury-chilli seasoning.
This was a fun idea. Everyone built their own bánh mì. For some friends, they were revisiting an old favourite that they have eaten many times in Vietnam. For other friends, this was their first encounter with the iconic snack.
Even better, each home made component was a stand out in its own right.
The pâté was just gamey enough in taste to be interesting. It was textured (rustic?), thick, yet easy to spread and creamy to taste. It used relatively little butter, and was finished with a good splash of cognac to provide a little extra oh-la-la. Spread on thin slices of (French) baguette with a tiny smear of raspberry jam, the pate also made quick and satisfying canapes.
The mayonnaise was a delicate yellow, silky smooth, so light yet tasting like a million dollars of rich. It was utterly different from the dense, stodgy stuff we find in shops. I think it converted a couple of confirmed mayonnaise haters including Mr Gander, who (as it turns out) has never had home made mayonnaise before.