The bánh mì, or Vietnamese style po-boy, is an amazing experience that any serious foodie just has to try, but fair warning is given: Once you try one you will be hooked.
Vietnam was a French colony for many years, and so France has left a deep cultural footprint. The French baguette is one of the culinary reminders of that time, and what the Vietnamese did with it is amazing. Almost everyone can appreciate how good a fresh baguette can be. The good folks in the Deep South have long known how to make a great po-boy, but imagine filling a still-warm baguette with barbecued red roasted pork tenderloin, Asian style meatballs, paté, crunchy daikon or jalapenos, and garnishing with aromatic cilantro. There is just nothing like it.
The bánh mì generally is not pressed and is wrapped in wax paper and held together with a rubber band. Forget Western condiments too -- this is not a sandwich that calls for mayo or mustard. Add a little soy sauce if you like, and more or less of hot peppers, daikon or cilantro, but nothing else is needed. This is a sandwich that probably is at its best when ordered from a Vietnamese restaurant (try Vietnamese Restaurant & Sushi, 3118 53rd Ave. E., Bradenton). You can also make your own pretty easily; all the ingredients are readily available in the Asian isle at the local grocery store or your local Asian market (Try Wong Kai Imports, 5404 33rd St. E., Bradenton). If you do decide to buy one made to order, you also will be amazed at the price -- many sell for less than $5.
A critical part of the bánh mì experience is the daikon and carrot salad that is always served as a condiment. It is not a strong flavored salad, but adds a delightful crunch.
DAIKON AND CARROT SALAD
1/2 pound julienned carrots
1/2 pound julienned daikon
4 cups warm water
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons salt
6 to 8 tablespoons rice vinegar
Combine the water, vinegar, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the daikon and carrots, mix well and seal in clean glass jars. This salad really needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least three or four days. After that, it is good for several weeks.
This may be the flagship po-boy of the Vietnamese repertoire. The barbecue (Char Siu) is delicious and tender; the daikon salad is crunchy, sweet and sour; the peppers add a nice bite, and
the cilantro adds just the right twang.
CHINESE RED BARBECUE PO-BOY
1 crusty baguette
1/2 pound red pork barbecue (can find at any Chinese take-out restaurant)
1 cup daikon and carrot salad
1 jalapeño pepper
Plenty of cilantro
Soy sauce as needed
Slice the baguette lengthwise, but do not separate the two halves. The barbecue should be sliced about 1/8-th of an inch thick (You can make your own, if you like; Google for several good recipes). Add the barbecue to the po-boy, top with the daikon and carrot salad, cut the jalapeño into rounds and add as many as you can stand and garnish with the cilantro. You might want to taste first, but a little salty soy sauce should be the only other condiment necessary.
You can buy meatballs in the frozen section of most Asian markets, but they are easy to make, and the homemade ones are so much better.
FOR THE MEATBALLS:
1/2 pound ground chuck
2/3 cup Panko bread crumbs
1/2 cup finely diced onion
3 to 4 finely chopped garlic cloves
1 farm fresh egg
2 to 3 good pinches red pepper flakes
2 to 3 tablespoons soy sauce
FOR THE PO-BOY:
1 crusty baguette
1 cup daikon and carrot salad
1 to 2 jalapeños
1/2 white onion, cut in half and separated
In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground chuck and panko bread crumbs. There is nothing to it, but to wash your hands and dive in, taking handfuls of the mixture and combining thoroughly. When you think you have just about got it right, add the egg, onion, garlic, pepper flakes and soy sauce. Repeat the process until it is well incorporated.
Use a1/4 cup measuring cup to measure out the meatballs and form into firm balls. Take your time and do it right, or they just might come apart when you fry them. In a large sauté pan, add a little oil and cook the meatballs over moderate heat.
Now is the time you can use some of your TV chef skills. Hoist the pan with two hands and give it a good couple of shakes, thrust forward, then pull it back. It is the best way to turn them over and insure even cooking.
When they are done, drain on paper towels and fill the baguette as in the recipe above.
This is definitely a Mississippi version of a bánh mì, but it is a good combination of ingredients. The purists will roll their eyes, and I don't think too many of my Vietnamese friends will try it, but it is awfully good.
RED PORK AND SPICY SLAW
1 crusty, locally baked baguette
1 pound thin sliced red pork
1 package slaw mix
1 cup best quality mayonnaise (homemade is always best)
2/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
3 to 4 tablespoons Mexican style hot sauce
Combine the slaw mix, mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar and hot sauce. Combine well and refrigerate for an hour or two. Slice the baguette almost in half, add the red barbecue pork, top with the spicy slaw. The slaw is a little wet and will soak the bread pretty quickly, so serve at once.