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Banh mi sandwich is a nearly perfect food

The French were in Vietnam for nearly a century. The most curious evidence of this is the ubiquity of the baguette there. Southeast Asian countries generally have so little passion for crunchy, wheat-flour, oh-so-Western loaves that this bread bonanza is startling. The Vietnamese baguette is a bit stumpier than its French cousin, a tad fluffier inside. And whereas the French may fill theirs primly with a little butter, maybe some ham or pate, the Vietnamese make Dagwood Bumstead look like a minimalist. • No doubt about it. The banh mi sandwich is a near-perfect food. Pronounced BUN-mee, it seems to be sweeping American cities this summer, each sandwich architect adding his or her own zesty spin.

B.T. Nguyen, chef/owner of Tampa's Restaurant BT, says it's a Vietnamese street food found on every corner in Ho Chi Minh City. A baguette is split and piled high with a variety of sliced meats; pickled carrots, daikon radish and cucumber; rounds of jalapeno or Thai chilies; and a tangle of cilantro or other herbs.

"The French brought us the bread and the pate, and we incorporated our own ingredients. There's cha lua, our own form of pate, really a kind of ground pork mousse that is whipped, wrapped in a banana leaf and then steamed and sliced really thin," Nguyen says. "Then we use different cold cuts like fresh bacon, marinated and slow-cooked."

What has made it a recent fixation among the country's foodies is twofold: First, they are cheap, starting as low as $2. And second, the assemblage of ingredients hits a range of sophisticated flavor notes. There's salty, sweet, spicy and aromatic, and textures that range from luxuriantly rich to crisp and light. Like any good 21st century sandwich, it's inclusive: cooks have added Polish kielbasa, Creole sausage, chili mayonnaise, garlic butter, meatballs, chicken curry, grilled eel and lots of other goodies, depending on whim and their own cultural heritage.

Still, says Sing Hurt, co-owner of Tampa's Bamboozle Café, the bread is the trickiest part.

"I was born in Vietnam but grew up in Tampa. We used to go to Orlando to find the bread. It's more like a hoagie, crisp on the outside but with a very soft interior. At Bamboozle, we get our bread par-baked and bake it off ourselves. It makes a huge difference."

To try your own hand at what has quickly become a culinary obsession (see battleofthebanhmi.com) for many cooks, start with this basic recipe and tinker.

As Hurt says, "It's great to see how much flavor a sandwich can have."

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.

Banh Mi, unstacked

1 A fresh baguette or hoagie roll, crispy on the outside, fluffy inside

2 Jalapenos or bird chilies, sliced thin

3 Ham

4 Cha lua, a spongy steamed pork roll seasoned with fish sauce

5 Minced barbecued pork

6 Sweet-sour pickled matchstick carrots and daikon radish

7 Thinly sliced cucumber

8 Fresh sprigs of cilantro

9 A schmear of pork liver pate

>>moderate

Basic Banh Mi

Vegetable slaw:

1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup julienned (or shredded) carrot

1/2 cup julienned (or shredded) daikon radish

Kosher salt

For sandwiches:

4 10-inch baguettes or crusty hoagie rolls

Mayonnaise, to taste

½ English cucumber, sliced lengthwise into 1/8-inch slices

2 to 4 jalapenos, sliced into 1/8-inch rounds, to taste

½ cup packed cilantro springs

A combination of the following meats:

8 thin slices Vietnamese-style pork roll (cha lua), available at Vietnamese markets (can substitute bologna)

8 ounces pork pate or liver

8 ounces sliced roasted pork

8 slices Vietnamese-style salami, ham or turkey

To make slaw, boil vinegar and sugar in small saucepan. Transfer to a bowl and cool. Add carrot and daikon, mix well and season with salt. Set aside 30 minutes or overnight.

To make sandwiches, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice baguettes lengthwise and spread with mayonnaise.

Bake on baking sheet until crusty about 5 minutes. Remove and immediately fill each with meats, a scoop of pickled carrot and daikon; cucumber, jalapeno and cilantro.

Experiment with seasonings: freshly ground pepper; soy sauce; fish sauce, chili oil or Sriracha sauce; thinly sliced red onion, fried shallot or caramelized onion. Serves 4.

Source: Adapted from Food Network

Banh mi sandwich is a nearly perfect food 07/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 5:30am]

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