Hi! Hi guys! I’m still here. I’ve just been AWOL for a week because of some major project deadlines that required working evenings and weekends (and listening to this song too many times – it gets so stuck in your head! Thanks SNL.), and that have left me with about the mental fortitude of a barnacle. I thought the project was going to be done yesterday. Wrong. We now have a couple NEW deadlines! Yippee!
But, those will just have to wait for a moment because I have a sandwich to share with you, and it is a smashing one.
A bánh mì is a Vietnamese sandwich with any variety of fillings. Given that my office is in Chinatown, I learned about bánh mì some time ago. On every corner there is a shop selling dirigible-sized baguette rolls filled with meats and pickles for $2. But, though I salivated every time I saw someone else gnawing their way through one, I could never bring myself to buy my own. Call me a street food wimp, but I was a wee bit sketched out by the meat and my thoughts of where it might come from.
I averted my eyes, and hustled past all the signs advertising massive, cheap sandwiches. But then, then fate intervened and brought the world Bon Me, the grand solution to my sandwich qualms.
A friend of mine from my master’s program started a bánh mì truck (called Bon Me, see? Clever.), and given that she had just completed a program on food policy, agriculture, and the environment, she and her food truck partners decided to source their ingredients from local, sustainable farms.
Another friend and I schlepped a couple miles through the rain to be there the day the truck opened and to buy ourselves some tasty, health conscience-assuaging sandwiches (also Vietnamese coffee blondies, but that’s a story and recipe quest for another day). With icy cold, wet fingers I unwrapped the paper from my bánh mì to steal a bite before we even got back to our office.
Cue the revelatory fanfare! It was everything a person could possibly hope for in a sandwich (at least if that person has a similar affinity as me for things like pickles and pates). Sticky, sweet-salty tender meat slices, crunchy pickled vegetables, spicy peppers, and a bouquet of cilantro all crammed into a warm, crusty baguette. Perfection.
Besides bánh mì and pho, I’m embarrassed by how little I know about Vietnam, and how few associations I have with it. When I think of Vietnam, what fills my mind is images from L’Amant, which I read in one of my French literature classes. I remember feeling slightly scandalized (it’s a scandalizing book, really – the title means “the lover” after all) by the plot and completely captivated by the rich imagery and language used to describe the land and the expanse of the Mekong river. I’m afraid this also means my image of Vietnam is tied up with French colonialism.
Now, colonialism is an absolutely horrible piece of our history. A shocking, and appallingly misguided part of Europe’s past. So, take what I’m going to say next with a grain of salt. When it comes to colonialism, at least the French left a decent culinary legacy! There are many things the French do not excel at, but they are undeniably good with food, and the contribution of croissants to a breakfast repertoire, for example, has got to provide at least a slip of a silver lining.
But anyways, the point, embedded in there somewhere, is that this brings us back to bánh mì, which is a good example of the fusion of French cuisine with the local. Bánh mì is le sandwich with une baguette, paté, even charcuterie, but laced with decidedly Eastern flavors and ingredients like cilantro and chilis.
And pickled vegetables! Oh the pickles. I think perhaps every sandwich should have crispy, mouth-puckering pickled cucumber, radish, and carrot tumbling out of it.
At this point, I’ve eaten from the Bon Me truck several times, all the while thinking, “I really could make this myself, if only I planned a little bit.”
Last week finally, I planned enough.
And now having made them, I’m giddy about how little planning it actually takes. For all its apparent complexity, this meal really took little more than 30 minutes to prepare, which is not a standard to which I hold all my meals, but which is a great boon on a weeknight when you have those darned deadlines to contend with.
Drawing on a recipe I saw for Vietnamese-inspired catfish with noodles, I decided I wanted to make a light, fresh fish version of bánh mì. For, as much as I love fatty, caramelized pork in my sandwich, it can land in the belly with quite a thud. The catfish, on the other hand, was flaky and tender but still delivered an intoxicatingly rich mix of toasty sesame, salty soy sauce, and sweet honey.
The pickled vegetables and cilantro are grassy, clean, and bright, but a slathering of spicy sriracha mayo (with a touch of yogurt for extra tang) pulls you back toward the opulent and makes up for the lack of pate, which I didn’t think would go quite so well with fish (though you’re more than welcome to try the pairing and report back). Between the sharp crunch of the baguette crust, the airy crumb of the interior, and the profusion of flavors and textures in the filling, to call this sandwich engaging is like calling Lady Gaga colorful. It’s true, but it doesn’t capture the sheer magnitude of it.
It’s captivating. It’s everything I hope for in a sandwich.
Catfish Banh Mi (serves 4)
- 1.5 lbs. catfish fillets (or other light, white fish)
- 2 Tbs. soy sauce
- 1 Tbs. honey
- 1/2 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
- 2 scallions, minced
- 1 Tbs. minced garlic
- 1 1/2 Tbs. minced, fresh ginger
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1 Tbs. Greek yogurt
- 1 Tbs. sriracha (plus more to taste)
- 1 crusty baguette, cut into 4 chunks (or 4 individual French baguette rolls)
- 1 bunch of cilantro, washed and stemmiest portions removed
- 1 thinly sliced jalapeno pepper (optional)
- Pickled vegetables (see below)
- Combine the soy sauce, honey, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and scallions in a shallow dish, add the catfish fillets and refrigerate for about 20 minutes, or up to 2 hours.
- Make the pickled vegetables (see below).
- Stir together the mayo, yogurt, and sriracha in a small bowl. Taste and add more sriracha to taste.
- When you’re ready to eat, heat your broiler to high. Remove the fish from the marinade, put it in a lightly greased baking pan and broil until it flakes easily with a fork, 6-10 minutes (depending on the thickness of the fish fillets).
- Cut open the baguette pieces, toast them, then spread them with the sriracha mayo. Fill each sandwich with some fish, pickled vegetables, a nice handful of cilantro, and some slices of jalapeno (if desired). Enjoy, licking your fingers all the while. (Also, if you’re avoiding bread, the fish and pickled vegetables are delicious with rice/rice noodles or on top of lightly dressed lettuce leaves as a salad.)
- 2-3 medium carrots, cut into very thin matchsticks
- 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into matchsticks
- 1 daikon or black radish (or several red radishes), sliced into thin rounds
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 Tbs. kosher salt
- 2 Tbs. sugar or honey
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. The pickles will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days.