I'd had a major craving for Banh mi the last week of January, right before I was leaving New York to move back home to Dubai. And for some inane reason or another, I never had a chance to fulfill that craving. The Banh mi shop shuts early. Or last-minute packing doesn't take the 2 hours I'd conscientiously carved out for it, but more like 2 days. Or I go for a farewell dinner with my NY group of friends, and stuff my face to such a tummy-clogging extent that a post-dinner dinner is out of the question. So I land up in Dubai, still craving curry-dripping chicken or spicy shredded beef loaded up with pickled carrots and daikon in a nice crusty baguette slathered with mayo. I had to find a banh-mi place in Dubai, and I had to find it fast.
Frantic Google search. No results for Dubai.
Must be a mistake, search again.
Still no results for Dubai.
Call food-saavy friends to ask.
Um woman, I actually have a day-job, and what's a banh-mi anyway?.
Wikipedia: Bánh mì or bánh mỳ (English pronunciation: /ˈbʌnmiː/, Vietnamese: [ɓǎːɲ mî]) is a Vietnamese baguette made with both wheat and rice flour, but more popularly known as a type of sandwich traditionally made with this type of baguette. The sandwich is made up of thinly sliced pickled carrots and daikon (do chua), cucumbers, cilantro, chili peppers, pâté, mayonnaise and various meat fillings or tofu. Popular bánh mì fillings include roasted or grilled pork, Vietnamese sausage, chicken, head cheese and ham.
In my vocab, Banh mi's are sandwiches on flavor-busting steroids. Really, it's just that simple. And ridiculously good. And if no one's selling them in Dubai, then I will make one at home myself, and put this craving to bed. I mean, how hard could it be? (...the famous last words)
Now mind you, I had never created a Banh mi before. In desperate cases like this one, I would usually have to resort to my parasitic tendencies of lobbing myself on to other blogs and cooking sites where people have divulged their innermost culinary secrets across the internet, and then sucking out all those succulent bits that would make for a fun and tasty kitchen experiment. My best find in this case was a blog called Viet World Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen, who conveniently had tons of literature and recipe fodder for the up-and-coming banh mi artist. I used Andrea's basic Master Banh mi recipe to confirm the various layers of bread, meat, mayo and veggies that need to make an appearance somewhere on the sandwich. My choreography in the kitchen looked somewhat as follows...
1. Carrot and Daikon Pickle
I loosely applied the vinegar:sugar proportions suggested in Viet World Kitchen'scarrot and daikon pickling method. Our local Spinney's didn't really have anything labeled 'daikon' in the veggies section, so I picked up the closest thing that looked like it - long white carrot-shaped radishes (these may well have been daikon, who knows)that tasted pretty authentic at the end. Maybe next time I'll throw cucumbers in too.
2. Aioili, or Roasted Garlic Mayo
A layer of this creamy garlicy spread was usually thrown in on the banh mi's sold by Baoguette, right behind my workplace in New York. Rather than go with some home-concocted version of mayo, I went back to the pros and looked up my mayo recipe from a fine cooking course with Chef Loren at the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC.
I don't go wild tweaking proportions of things that go into recipes involving strange multi-syllable chemical reactions like emulsification...so I pretty much followed the recipe to the 'T.' With one, important and unplanned deviation - I used spicy brown mustard instead of yellow or dijon mustard. And it tasted phenomenal! Really gave this nice salty, subtle spicy kick to the mayo.
For a 3/4th cup of basic mayo, I threw in:
- 1 whole egg at room temp (or 2 egg yolks if you have masochistic hand-whisking tendencies)
- 1.5 T of vinegar (you could also use another acid like lemon juice)
- 1 t of salt
- 2 t of mustard
...in the hand blender, and then gradually drizzled in...
- 1 cup of vegetable oil (you don't want to be using EVOO for this one)
...praying fervently that my mayo wouldn't break into ugly separated globules of oil and vinegar. The point at which you get to do your kitchen 'I'm-so-cool-I-can-emul-sify' victory jiggle is when you feel/hear the 'thump' of creamy mayo against the blender, having successfully metamorphosized from the liquid egg-acid-mustard-salt mixture that you had started out with. Magic.
With the mayo done, I roasted three cloves of garlic until golden brown, and once they'd cooled to room temperature, I squeezed out the pungent garlic flesh into the mayo mixture. Homemade mayo is way easier than you can imagine, and INFINITELY more awesome than anything you could get at the store. Plus it gives you week-long bragging rights at the dinner table.
3. Marinated chicken (or any kind of meat/seafood/veggies)
Mayo is to Banh mi filling as science is to art. This is where I used my creative culinary license to the maximum, drawing on a few ingredients like fish sauce, lemon grass, scallions and garlic that seemed to be common threads across most of the online Banh mi meat marination recipes. Frankly, you could make any East Asian-inspired marinated poultry/meat/seafood/veggies concoction, and it would make the Banh mi cut. And since I don't really go by proportions when I get my artsy ingredient-flinging fits in the kitchen, I can only give you a rough idea of what went in...
Boneless chicken breast (maybe a half kg tray), chopped up into slightly-smaller-than-bite-sized chunks
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice (I used 2 lemons' worth)
- Chopped scallions
- Hoisin sauce (approx. 2 T, or more if you'd like a sweeter marinade)
- Roasted Chilli Paste (approx. 2-3 T. I used the one from Thai Choice, which is a soybean oil-based earthy blend including fish sauce, a prime Vietnamese marination ingredient and other yummy add-in's like shallots, dried fish and dried chilli)
- Bunch of green chillies, depending on your heat tolerance level
- Sesame oil (approx. 4-5 T)
...and then thrown in the refrigerator for an hour or so. Once the marinade had enough time to soak in, it was time for some wok action.
- Once my canola oil was hot, I tossed in:
- Minced inner white bulbs of lemon grass (keep the lemon grass stalks separate)
- Chopped ginger
- Chopped shallots
- More chillies, if you want to amp up the heat
...and let them sauté for a bit before I added in my marinated chicken mixture. At this point, I just let the wok, oil and heat do their magic, with just a few additional touches to intensify the gravy, namely:
- The lemon grass stalks, dropped in whole so that they can be removed once the chicken is done
- Some more of the Hoisin sauce and Thai roasted chilli paste
- And a drizzle of soy sauce, just to increase the volume of the gravy without diluting the flavors (which may have been the case if I'd used water)
And that was it. No science to it. Just throw in all the sweet-sour-spicy flavors that go into your favorite Chinese/Thai/other Southeast Asian dish, and you're set.
This is where I experienced some heartburn - I didn't have access to any authentic Vietnamese baguette-selling grocery store. The crispiness, freshness and thickness of the baguette are key elements of the perfect Banh mi, and I just wasn't sure if the French baguettes in the grocery down the road would cut it. I'm not even totally sure whether French and Vietnamese baguettes are the same; different sites have different opinions, but the latter was definitely influenced by the former. Regardless, if I wasn't sure about the quality of the baguette available, I wasn't going to risk my Banh mi on an imperfect imposter that could come close, but stop short of the perfect experience. So rather than buying French baguettes, or undertaking the daunting task of baking the Vietnamese ones described on Viet World Kitchen (something I seriously considered doing, until I realized that I didn't have time to go and get a baguette baking tray), I decided to take a completely different route and not use baguettes at all. If I can't have them, then I'm not even going to try to come close. Instead, I'd try to bake something that would approximate the crispy texture, but that would be my own creative take on the sandwich, an open-faced banh-mi on a plain version of the garlic and rosemary flatbread recipe on TasteSpotting. (My sincere apologies to all you Banh mi purists out there for publicly posting a bastardized version of this sacred sandwich.)
I may have goofed up the dough prep process. I may have over-baked my bread a bit. I may have even dropped the dough midway through a furious taekwondo-inspired kneading move. (for the record, that last one did not happen). None of it mattered, because I ended up with freshly baked bread that, by virtue of being served within minutes of its emergence from my oven, formed the perfect warm and crunchy bed for my meat and veggie toppings. Moral of the story: If you are not an expert baker, make sure to bake your goodies as close to meal time as possible, so that people get distracted by the smell of something warm and soul-satisfying baking in the oven. Had I baked it hours in advance, and left it out to cool and harden into the granite rock that my imperfect flatbreads would have eventually morphed into, this blog post would have ended on a far more morbid note.
Fresh cilantro is critical. It adds this fresh springtime flavor which cuts through all the pickled, marinated, pungent layers in the rest of Banh mi filling with its own unique and fragrant oomph! I used heaps of it, just snipped up haphazardly with a pair of scissors right on top of the sandwich itself. And finally, time to plate up all the components. Warm crispy flatbread. Generous, creamy slather of roasted garlic mayo. Fresh snips of cilantro. Sloppy spoonful of marinated chicken. Pickled slivers of carrot and radish. And to garnish, another final artistic snip of cilantro.
Banh mi craving conquered.