Some terrible things have positive outcomes. Take colonization, for example. You know what’s great about colonization? Bánh mì. It’s true. The French colonized Vietnam for the export of tobacco, indigo, tea and coffee, but when they taught the Vietnamese their baking secrets, a little magic happened. You know that saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? This is like the opposite of that.
Vietnamese bakeries in the US tend to have a vast array decidedly un-French pastries and breads, including such oddities as “pork floss Swiss roll” (an insipid, Twinkie-esque sponge with cream filling and dried, shredded pork) or “hot dog scallion bun” (a soft roll with sliced hot dogs, scallions, and often cheese baked into it like a zhuzhed-up pig-in-a-blanket). I will admit a fondness for the scallion brioche buns (they make incredible hamburger buns), and their baguette? Well.
Vietnamese baguette, when done correctly, is ethereal and light with the merest crust, shatteringly delicate. It is the perfect vessel for a sandwich, and the bánh mì is a perfect marriage of Vietnamese and French culinary traditions.
I’ve had bánh mì many ways: BBQ chicken, shredded pork with tripe, “the works” with pork liver pâté. I think this version, with pork meatballs and rillette (and homemade do chua and phở-spiced pickles), is a contender. I made meatballs by mixing a pound of ground pork with an egg, a minced shallot, a spoonful of fish sauce, some minced cilantro, a few pinches of sugar and pepper. I roasted these in a shallow pan so the drippings stayed put, flipping halfway to baste.
To make the do chua, I sliced a daikon radish and four or five carrots on a mandoline and steeped them in a solution of rice vinegar, a splash of water, salt and sugar. Warning: pickled daikon is extremely stinky, thanks to sulfur compounds in the isothiocyanate that bestows the mustard family with its unmistakable odor – they reek like wet socks and ass, but have been demonstrated to inhibit carcinogenesis and prevent tumors, so eat up! Just open a window first.
My phở pickles, by contrast, do not stink. They are heavenly. A couple weeks ago, I sliced pickling cukes about 1/4″ thick crosswise and pickled them with rice vinegar and lime juice, a bit of fish sauce for salt, a little sugar, a good knob of charred ginger and shallot, a few sprigs of cilantro and a bay leaf, 2 stars of anise and one clove per quart jar. I added 1/4tsp of Pickle Crisp granules (calcium chloride is a food-grade salt that works amazingly well for keeping processed and fermented pickles crispy) and processed in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. I sliced these pickles into little matchsticks to be neatly tucked into the sandwich.
To assemble the bánh mì, I sliced the (warmed! you really ought to warm the bread first) baguette in half and on one side of the bread, I smeared a thick layer of the rillette from a little while ago. On the other side, sriracha mayonnaise (mix mayo and sriracha, et voilà). Nestle the meatballs lovingly into the rillette – now starting to melt in a little – as you would your little babies into a soft feather bed. Layer on your do chua and any other pickles you might fancy (if you can muster, you should consider making the phở pickles – you can also add them to rice vermicelli with grilled meat and nuoc mam). Tuck a nice squonch of cilantro in there for good measure. Add some thinly sliced jalapeño if you like your food to hurt a little. If you like things really salty, hit each bite with a squirt of Maggi.
Oh god, this sandwich. You will need to wash your face when you’re done. Enjoy with a cold beer.