Ode to Banh Mi

Look at that picture. I bet your mouth has started watering at how good it looks. Recently Mimi Ware did a piece on the venerable Pho, the wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup that brings a warm comfort even at the thought of it. It inspired me to write a piece about another, perhaps lesser known piece of culinary excellence to come out of Vietnam that I love beyond words: the Banh Mi.

The banh mi, also known as a Saigon Roll or often just a pork roll, is one of the greatest food creations of civilisation. I’m not even kidding or exaggerating here, it’s that good. Sure, there are a host of chefs doing amazing things with food, degustation menus are all over the place and we’ve got the whole molecular gastronomy thing going on, but the thing about banh mi is that it is so utterly simple and cheap, accessible to everyone and offering so much bang for buck.

I was going to say “close your eyes and imagine this”, but then you wouldn’t be able to read! But here goes. You bite into the bread roll, its thin crust is super crispy before giving way to soft, pillow like white bread. When you get to the middle, what happens is pure genius. You have pate spread on the roll, which is offset by zingy, pickled carrot. You’ve got pork, which can be roasted with crackling, or the Chinese bbq type, or the deli meat variety, which is offset by the fresh, unmistakable taste of coriander (cilantro for you Americans). You have bits of chilli that burn up your mouth and taste quite dry, which is offset by the refreshing coolness of cucumber. It’s all bound together by a light, slightly salty soy sauce.

All of this is going on simultaneously as you chew it, all of these flavours perfectly bouncing off of one another creating the gastronomic equivalent of an orgasm.

Here’s the important thing though: you can’t cheap out. A good banh mi will cost you anywhere from $5 to $10 — if you see one for $3, don’t rush over thinking you’re grabbing a bargain. Odds are that they will be stingy with ingredients that are days old with a stale, chewy ass roll. Instead of the above orgasm, you’re left tasting nothing except disappointment and regret. A good banh mi is all about the freshness of the ingredients, because being such a simple dish, there is nowhere to hide. Everything has to be fresh cut and the bread baked that day.

To make the perfect banh mi, it’s pretty obvious that you need to balance all the ingredients just right. Nothing irritates me more than when they are stingy with any one ingredient, especially the coriander. When you put a lot less of one ingredient in, it’s like (for all you GoT fans) The Mountain trying to dance a fast tango with Arya Stark — it’s not going to work because one overpowers the other and throws everything off balance.

You’ll find banh mi in most any Vietnamese bakery, but the best way to find good stuff is to go to a Vietnamese neighbourhood and look for the stand that has a line up at lunchtime. That said, banh mi is good at any time of day, be it for breakfast or late afternoon. You might even get lucky on your way home from work if it isn’t too late.

So the next time you’re feeling blue, you want to try something different or hell, even celebrating a promotion, go and find yourself a good banh mi. It’s the food for all occasions!

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