Saturday, June 05, 2010

Project Bánh Mì

This post, I suppose, has been years in the making (read: Warning - Very long one lies ahead).

There's a handful of foods W is slightly obsessed with. Which, really, means that every specimen that crosses his path must stand up to even more persnickety than usual scrutiny as to what passes muster. Woe betide the cook or establishment that has the audacity to serve a subpar burger, pizza, taco or phở (it's not quite so esoteric a list considering that he grew up in New York, and spent a significant part of his early working life in SoCal).

Bánh mì - also popularly known as a Saigon sub - as you can well imagine, ranks rather high on this list.

For the longest time, I never could quite understand what the fuss was all about (or see here). But then again, as W rightly pointed out, I had yet to eat a pukka example. Finally, some years back, on a trip to Sydney, we took an eternity of a train ride to Cabramatta the inconvenience of which was promptly forgotten and my enroute grumbling sheepishly taken back as we tucked into steamy, aromatic, gargantuan bowls of righteous phở piled high with perfectly cooked beefy tidbits and perky fresh herbs, and ordered to go a couple of wax paper wrapped baguette sandwiches to see us through the return journey.

Suffice to say I had a bit of an epiphanic moment as I chomped my way through that super sub, stuffed to the gills with an embarassment of succulent charcuterie, exotically accented yet strangely familiar, given a nice verdant fillip with crunchy pickles and fragrant coriander.

Sadly, looking for the same high here is about as fruitful as waiting for Godot in that Beckett play. Fortunately, we'd since chanced upon an excellent 13th arrondissement Vietnamese traiteur in Paris wrapping up excellent bánh mì.

Which is all fine and dandy until you get excruciating and inexplicable cravings for that-which-you-may-not-have between fixes/trips. Which is when you roll up your sleeves, sling on an apron, look up every possible available resource, and - bánh mì gods willing - craft your own (as if you haven't already, see Melissa's fabulous post).

There are as many bánh mì permutations as there are cooks, but here's ours. It's taken me a while (a pretty long while), but after much tweaking and editing and wringing of hands, here're the current most-favoured elements of our ever-morphing and hopefully-improving bánh mì play list (NB: We're firmly in the porky pig paradise camp. Looking for lean mean chicken or meatless seitan? Sorry, here is not the place.):
  • 6-inch length of baguette
  • Roast cinnamon sausage (see below)
  • Chicken liver pâté (see below)
  • Ham terrine (see below)
  • Daikon & carrot pickle (see below)
  • Mayonnaise, either homemade (see below) or Kewpie (Japanese mayo)
  • Maggi Seasoning or light soy sauce
  • Sriracha chilli sauce, or sliced chillies
  • Cucumber spears
  • Coriander sprigs

PS: It's certainly not a spur-of-the-moment affair to cobble together. Spot on, however, for a weekend project and/or if you have potluck-happy friends.

PPS: Everything below will serve 4 to 6, depending on appetite/greed of partakers.

Roast Cinnamon Sausage

For the tastiest results, bake the sausage the day before you plan to serve it, for the flavour improves in a startling fashion with an overnight maturation. Working backwards, this means ideally getting started 2 days in advance, as the raw meat needs to sit in its marinade overnight too.

If you can find it, the banana leaf imparts a lovely fragrance to the sausage. If not, not all is lost – simply bake the meat paste directly on the aluminium foil.

Tempted as you may be to skip the fat back; please don’t. Fat back is the secret of all great tasting charcuterie, be it French or Vietnamese, as it adds immeasurably to the taste, moistness and tenderness of the end result.

500 gm Pork leg, shoulder or collar meat (trimmed weight)
2 Tbsp + 1½ tsp Fish sauce
2 Tbsp + 1½ tsp Neutral vegetable oil, such as sunflower or soybean, plus extra for greasing
2 Tbsp + 1½ tsp Water
1½ tsp Double action baking powder
2 Tbsp Tapioca starch
1½ tsp Finely crushed yellow rock sugar (or substitute caster sugar)
½ tsp Freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp Ground cinnamon, preferably freshly toasted and ground
1 Shallot, peeled and minced
1 Garlic clove, peeled and minced
100 gm Pork fat back, cubed
20 x 20 cm piece of fresh banana leaf, trimmed of brown edges, rinsed and patted dry (optional)

1. Trim away the skin and bones on the pork cut you have bought. Remove and discard all gristle and silver skin. Slice into 1cm-thick pieces. Set aside. Note: You need 500gm in trimmed weight, so buy a bit more to begin with.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, vegetable oil, water, baking powder, tapioca starch, sugar, pepper, cinnamon, shallot and garlic. When marinade is evenly combined, add the prepared pieces of pork, stirring to coat thoroughly. Cling wrap the bowl and set aside in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours. The pieces of pork will become considerably stiffer.
3. When ready to make the meat paste, place bowl of pork in the freezer for 30 minutes before processing.
4. Meanwhile, prepare the pork fat back. Blanch in boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes until firm. Drain and cool. Dice finely into pieces about the size of rice grains. Set aside.
5. Fit the food processor with the chopping/mixing steel blade. Transfer the partially frozen pork into the food processor bowl, breaking up any large clumps. Be sure to add all the marinade in the bowl. Process for about 5 minutes, until a smooth, firm, buff pink and very fine paste forms, stopping the processor occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. The paste is ready when it is shiny, springs back to the touch, and there are no visible bits of pork left. Transfer meat paste to a large mixing bowl.
6. Add the prepared pork fat, folding in so that it is evenly distributed throughout the meat paste.
7. Preheat oven to 165°C, fan-assisted mode. Position a rack in the middle of the oven.
8. Line a baking tray with aluminium foil. If using a banana leaf, place it on the lined tray and lightly grease with oil (if not, grease the foil). Scrape the meat paste onto the banana leaf (or foil). With lightly greased hands, firmly pat meat paste into a square that’s about 3 cm thick, smoothing the top and sides. Use a toothpick or bamboo skewer to dock the paste at regular 3 cm intervals (this prevents it from puffing excessively).
9. Bake for 30 minutes, or until light golden brown and firm to the touch. A toothpick inserted in the centre should emerge clean. Place tray on a wire rack and let sausage cool completely.

Storage & serving: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 7 days. You will find it’s easiest to cut the sausage after it’s been well-chilled in order to obtain nice, neat, thin slices. So slice what you need straight from the refrigerator, but let the slices come to room temperature (about 30 minutes) before serving.

Chicken Liver Pâté

A simple yet tasty way of making pâté - no need for enamelled cast iron terrine or bain marie. Specifically for the purpose of schmearing into this particular bánh mì combo, I like the texture of the liver pâté super smooth, as I prefer the velvety contrast against the other of my chosen elements, all of which have plenty variegated texture, chew and crunch. Also, it is not too barnyardy in character, as evidenced by the abundant use of counterbalancing dairy product (a.k.a. butter). In bánh mì, it’s all about balance, be it in terms of texture or taste.

If, however, you prefer a pâté with texture you can sink your teeth into (which is more traditional), or will be using a different combination/permutation of charcuterie, feel free to replace a liked fraction of the quantity of chicken liver with some cooked ground pork and/or pork liver. Speaking of which, the trad approach would be a terrine more akin to a rustic French country number, comprising of pork/chicken/beef liver, ground pork/beef, and pork fat back. For such a style of recipe, you may wish to refer to the concise reading list on Vietnamese cuisine I’ve provided below, or adapt a classic French charcuterie recipe you already like to your purposes.

Essentially, what follows here is an untraditional pâté de foie de volaille, given bold Vietnamese-y punctuation with a splash of fish sauce (which adds much mysterious umami without actually shouting “fish sauce”) and a sprinkle of Chinese 5-spice powder (in lieu of quatre épices).

250 gm Chicken livers (cleaned weight)
150 gm Unsalted butter
2 Shallots, peeled and minced
3 Garlic cloves, peeled and minced
¼ tsp 5-spice powder
2 Tbsp Armagnac, cognac or brandy
1 tsp Fish sauce
½ tsp Fine sea salt
¼ tsp Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp Caster sugar
100 gm Whipping cream

1. Meticulously pick over the chicken livers, discarding all veins, sinew, membranes, fat and bile (the discoloured dark green bits); they will contribute an unwanted dimension to the final taste. Then rinse, pat dry and set aside. Note: You need 250gm in cleaned weight, so do buy a bit more to begin with.
2. Melt 100 gm of the butter. Set aside to cool.
3. Melt 25 gm of the remaining butter in a heavy skillet (of a size able to accommodate all the livers comfortably in one layer) over medium-high heat. Once butter starts to foam, add the livers. Fry 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown. Flip over and brown the other side, another 1 to 2 minutes. You want them crusty golden brown on the outside and tenderly pink within. Transfer to a large plate, scraping out all the tasty fat, juices and browned bits. Set aside to cool.
4. In the same (unwashed) skillet, melt the rest of the butter (25 gm) over low heat. Gently fry the shallots still golden and softly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and fry. Once garlicky aroma hits your nose (no more than 1 minute), add the 5-spice powder. Stir briefly to mix evenly. Once aromatic, transfer mixture to a small bowl. Set aside to cool.
5. Bump up heat. Deglaze skillet with Armagnac, scraping diligently to incorporate all the tasty browned bits stuck to pan. Once reduced to a syrup, scrape into a small bowl. Set aside to cool.
6. Sling melted butter, livers, shallot-garlic mixture, and reduced alcohol into blender jar. Add fish sauce, salt, pepper and sugar. Blitz to blend till completely smooth; this will take a few minutes. The mixture will look separated at this point. Add the cream. Blitz briefly to blend. It will now be homogeneous and creamy. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
7. Pass the paste through a fine-meshed sieve, such as a chinois, to eliminate any stray sinew.
8. Scrape into a dish and chill in the refrigerator to set, at least 2 hours but preferably overnight so the flavours can develop.
9. Before serving, let come to room temperature (about 30 minutes) so it is the ideal spreading consistency.

Storage: Consume within 3 days. For longer term storage (up to 7 days), seal with a layer of clarified butter, duck fat or goose fat.


Phew, OK, what a bunch of work already. The 2 meat elements described above are plenty for constructing an awesome sandwich, but if you are (A) in the mood to bring it to the next level and pack some extra oomph, and more importantly, (B) not fat-phobic, may I suggest looking up chef Tien Ho’s ham terrine recipe from David Chang’s brilliant Momofuku cookbook – which, incidentally, I think is one of the best things to have hit the bookshelves in 2009, the ultimate cookbook as only the ultimate anti-restaurant could have produced. To quote verbatim, “the ham terrine is like a ghetto-simplified and lightly Vietnamesed jambon persillé”. Instead of parsley-ed aspic, the pieces of ham are bound by scrumptious garlic-infused pork fat.

Yup, you heard me, crazy huh? Solid. Ivory. Creamy. Dreamy. Melt-in-your-mouth. Pork. Fat. Lest I offend the cholesterol police, or give the plot away, let me say no more. Let's just let slip if you’re keen on the good piggy stuff, and if you don’t already own a copy, this book has your name all over it.

I adore the recipe as is. But having made the recipe a couple of times, here’re a couple of random notes:
  • The addition of a teaspoonful each of black peppercorns and coriander seeds, along with a couple of cloves to the spice/herb mix is nice.

  • If you can’t locate curing salt in a reasonable (in domestic terms) quantity, fret not, do without; the terrine won’t be as pink but it’ll still taste pretty phenomenal.

  • Like a taller (like the one pictured) terrine? Use a terrine mold/loaf pan that’s slightly narrower width-wise (but at least as tall). Mine’s 7.5 by 4.5-inch.

Daikon & Carrot Pickle

To julienne the daikon and carrots, you can go all old school and use a really sharp chef’s knife. But I must confess I much prefer using my cheap-and-cheerful Benriner mandoline – in my opinion, this Japanese contraption is still the best tool for the job. The blade to use is the medium-sized one (the Benriner comes with 3 blades), thus producing matchsticks about 2.5mm thick. Peel the daikon and carrots, cut them into 8 cm lengths, then julienne.

300 gm Peeled and shredded daikon
100 gm Peeled and shredded carrot
1 tsp Fine salt
2 tsp + 130 gm Caster sugar
200gm White rice vinegar
200 gm Hot water

1. Transfer the julienned vegetables into a large bowl. Sprinkle with the salt and 2 tsp of the sugar. Massage into the vegetables for 5 minutes; they will soften and disgorge a fair bit of water. Dump vegetables into a colander to drain, pressing down quite firmly to get rid of excess liquid. Transfer drained vegetables to an airtight container. Set aside.
2. Combine the remaining 130 gm sugar and vinegar in a jug. Add the hot water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Pour this pickling fluid over the vegetables; the vegetables should be completely covered. Store in the refrigerator.
3. Let steep at least 24 hours before serving.

Storage: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 14 days.

Garlic Mayonnaise

2 Garlic cloves, peeled
¼ tsp + 1/8 tsp Coarse sea salt
3 Egg yolks
¼ tsp Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp Freshly squeezed lemon juice
200 gm Neutral vegetable oil, such as sunflower or soybean

1. Crush garlic with the back of a knife with the salt, discarding the inner green shoots (which are bitter), until a fine paste is formed.
2. Combine the garlic paste, egg yolks, pepper and lemon juice in a medium bowl with a whisk. Stand the bowl on a wetted-and-wrung-out tea towel on the work surface so as to keep bowl stable and hands free to manipulate whisk and oil.
3. Gradually add the oil in a thin trickle to begin with - adding only a few drops at a time - whisking continuously until mixture is thickened and stable. You can now add the remaining oil in a slow steady stream, still whisking continuously, ensuring the last addition had been properly emulsified before adding the next..
4. Once the oil is completely incorporated and the mayonnaise is thick, glossy and properly emulsified, taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary/to taste with more salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Storage: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, with cling wrap pressed directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming, for up to 7 days.

The preferred order? We like one side of the split baguette (preferably something thinly crusty but not too crusty without, and airy but not too pappy within) thickly slathered with liver pâté , the other with garlicky mayo, the whole stuffed with slices of cinnamon sausage and ham terrine, then topped with cucumber spears and daikon & carrot pickle, and finished with a dash of Maggi, Sriracha and sprigs of coriander.

At some point, you'll probably want to explore other awesome alternatives (all porcine, I'm afraid) featuring treats such as char siu, kho, head cheese and by-any-other-name meatballs/sausage patties.

Or serve the stuff as part of an Asian charcuterie plate, morsels atop piping hot rice or slippery noodle portions, or most virtuously of all with good old salad greens.

Below, a selective reading list put together based on the fact that of the books I have on the various subjects at hand, these are the ones I actually use and refer to time and again. Recipes above are inspired by and adapted from the collective wisdom found between the covers of:

(On Vietnamese food):
Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen ; Mai Pham's Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table;
Nicole Routhier’s The Foods of Vietnam; Corinne Trang’s Authentic Vietnamese Cooking (there’s a bánh mì dough recipe using a combination of wheat flour and rice flour),
Pauline Nguyen’s Secrets of the Red Lantern, and Luke Nguyen’s The Songs of Sapa

(On Southeast Asian food):
Wendy Hutton’s Green Mangoes and Lemon Grass; Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet

(On all-round hog heaven):
David Chang’s Momofuku

And web resources like:
Andrea Nguyen’s Viet World Kitchen and Asian Dumplings; Battle of the Bánh Mì ; and White on Rice