Continuing our culinary tour through the land of Sandwich (the conceptual place, not the geographical one, which is embarrassingly not famous for great sandwiches), we visit the banh mi. It's a sandwich for the eating man who feels that this ham could be porkier. Intrigued? No? Then neither we nor Heaven can save you, vegetarian.
Last time we looked at a basic U.S. sub sandwich. Well the banh mi is a basic Vietnamese sub. In fact, it's pretty much Vietnam's only sandwich, but you'd stop too if you invented this your first swing at the plate. It might be the greatest sandwich ever made, but we can't do comparisons because it makes us forget other sandwiches exist. It's like love, but less expensive and very seldom is your sandwich stolen by some prick who makes more money than you. The Oxford English Dictionary added "banh mi" to its guts this spring, but we've been adding it to ours for years now. See what you can do to help this important cause of eating a Damn Good Sandwich.
Bread: Banh mi means "Wheat cake" in Vietnamese, but cake can only wish it were this delicious. Back in the day, the whole region used to be called "French Indochina," which literally could have meant one of nine different things depending on which alternate timeline you belong to. In this case, the French spread their empire to the far east, and then realized they weren't interested in controlling foreign lands so much as disseminating culinary techniques. They taught their subjugated nations the fine art of baking, and then left. That's why Vietnam is a great place to get dessert, and why an extra-crisp baguette is your only bread for the banh mi. (Vietnamese baguettes use rice flour to make for a thinner crust and airy crumb.)
To prepare, you might want want to cut a broad, shallow trench in the sliced bread. This provides a good home for the many loose ingredients, and also protects them from Charlie, who could be anywhere.
Meat: Technically speaking, you can put in any boldly seasoned meat you want, but since we're making a classic, you want pig. Pork is a Vietnamese staple (coincidentally, staples in your stomach are the only way you'll be able to stop eating these sammiches).
Pork: A pork liver pate isn't going to be easy to find, but you need it to rock this sandwich. Get chummy with your butcher, and see if she won't set some aside for you. Yeah, your butcher's a lady. It's the 21st century. But you left your wallet at home - how will you pay for all this pate? (Bok-chokka-wow-wow...awwww yeah...ew. You're imagining a porno in a room full of blood and guts. Grow up, deviant.) If you can't find pork liver pate, a crushed pork meatball can carry the sandwich. Or use both! The pig's already dead, might as well get some mileage out of it. Pair them with pork belly, which is bacon on the Y-axis.
Head cheese: Brother, what goes into a head cheese would make a hot dog blush. And it's delicious -- beautiful on the tongue like a model speaking French. Slice it thin as you can: You'll know which one it is at the deli, because it's the only meat that has yet to be unwrapped and sold to anyone.
Ham: Thin-sliced or shredded, some boiled ham will bring a smile to everyone except the pig it came from (and even then only because his lips are in the head cheese.)
Condiment: Look, you already have two kinds of pig on the roll, so let's not pretend to be health-conscious now. Get real mayonnaise: eggs, oil, an acid like lemon juice or vinegar, maybe a touch of mustard. Nothing with xanthan gum or partially dehydrogenated orphan. Got the mayo? Good. Now mix it up real good with softened butter. Wooooo! You can never die! You want rich, fattening flavor, because that pork died to get you a good sandwich. You're going to honor its sacrifice by following it into heaven as far as your arteries will let you.
It's common to spread this sandwichy delight with a spicy chili sauce (Srichacha works unless you can get a lead on a more localized spread). The U.S. version frequently cheats on the kick by dubbing in sliced jalapeno peppers. And finally: A little bit of soy sauce to remind that sandwich of its roots. People will tell you to use Maggi sauce, if you can find it, but it's about the same effect.
Cheese: Mostly left off, but it's not unusual to spread a soft cheese here for its texture and flavor. Your mayo should have this covered, though, leaving you free to woo fair young damsels.
Vegetables: You're going to julienne all of these veggies, which is a fancy way of saying "slice into long, thin strips perfect for a sub sandwich." Unless you know a girl named Julienne, in which case, this is a different affair entirely.
Cucumber: Did you julienne it? Then you're done. Good work, Special Agent You!
Carrot: You have to pickle it after it's sliced. It's pretty easy to do, you'll probably have more trouble buying a...
Daikon radish: Also pickled. If you can't find it, cheat with jicama or plain old radishes (but they have a little more kick.)
Cilantro: Three or four whole sprigs, stem and all. If you're one of those people genetically incapable of enjoying cilantro, just quit. For pete's sake, have the decency to quit.
What you should be holding in your hands now is a crispy flavor-grenade full of pork and pickled's, accelerated by some hot zip and a smear of good, old-fashioned heart attack sauce. Enjoy!
Brendan McGinley is the sour pickle in a comedy sandwich.