Oddly enough, I first tasted banh mi, one of the world’s most delectable sandwiches, in Albuquerque.
This was decades ago; I was hungry and grabbed one from the checkout counter of a giant Asian supermarket. Two bites in, I was hooked. It was extraordinarily flavorful — sweet, spicy and meaty. For me, it was a pleasant change from the usual New Mexico menu of tacos, enchiladas and tamales (though I love those, too).
There are now, of course, numerous Vietnamese-American communities and Vietnamese restaurants all over the United States, so banh mi is readily available, known to many as a first-rate quick bite. The classic, built in a crisp baguette spread with mayonnaise, contains pâté, thinly sliced ham and roasted pork, along with strips of pickled vegetables, cilantro, cucumber and hot chiles.
Banh mi is, after all, a hybrid, with French colonial roots. The French eventually pulled out of Vietnam, and for the most part, local flavors replaced Gallic ones. But the baguette, mayonnaise and liver pâté remained.
Shops specializing in the sandwich are fairly easy to find in New York City, but all are not created equal. Much of their success lies in the bread: ideally a sandwich roll or baguette, with a crisp crust and fluffy interior, and always heated. When I was in Vietnam a few years ago, the bread was warmed over hot coals, kept behind the counter for that specific task.
But at home, you might use your oven, and a kaiser roll, a small ciabatta or a bolillo from a corner bodega. Or look for an old-fashioned airy baguette from a French bakery (not the denser, new-wave type).
However much I love them, though, I’m no more than an amateur, one who has gleaned quite a few tips from the California-based teacher and food writer Andrea Nguyen’s book, “The Banh Mi Handbook” (Ten Speed Press, 2014). In it, she offers countless twists on the original, including fillings of grilled chicken, stir-fried beef and char siu pork, and even a Louisiana po’ boy-style banh mi with fried oysters, all of which she claims as authentic.
Emboldened, I decided to make banh mi with miniature pan-fried crab cakes and all the spicy trimmings. It received raves, but I’ve also made banh mi with fried shrimp. Both would be approved by Ms. Nguyen, I suspect.
Other options could include mayonnaise-dressed lobster or crab salad, as kind of riff on a Yankee lobster roll. But maybe don’t try serving it to die-hard, traditionalist New Englanders.
Recipe: Crab Cake Banh Mi Sandwich
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