Here in San Francisco, our Little Saigon is a two-block stretch of Vietnamese American-owned shops and services in the gritty heart of a dodgy neighborhood. Visits are worth getting yelled at by chemically-addled working girls for two reasons: the Vietnamese sandwich shop and the markets. Equally dim in lighting as they are fantastic in their offerings, you can get a báhn mì (for the price of a latte!), the famous Vietnamese sub that’ll make you want to cry it’s so good, and fixings to make your own at home. (Plus weird little ginger candies that you can feed to your puppy in hopes of easing car sickness. But I digress.)
With such a distinct cuisine, it’s sort of funny to think of Vietnamese food as fusion, though that’s very much the case. After a millennium of Chinese domination (Vietnam’s the only Southeast Asian country whose citizens eat primarily with chopsticks), absorption of Khmer and Cham cultures, the odd Mongol invasion (led by Kublai Khan, no less), European missionaries and a hefty dose (1887-1954) of French colonialism, it’s often an elegant mish-mash of traditions, borrowing the best of each.
It’s the French influence, of course, that’s most obvious in the plucky báhn mì: a puffy-crisp baguette swathed with pâte, with Chinese-style barbecued meats or Italian-ish cold cuts, a dash of Swiss-brand seasoning and crunchy, quick-pickled carrots and daikon radish. Add splashes of heat from chilis, a swipe of mayo and a verdant halo of cilantro, and you have what sounds like a culinary mess but eats like a symphony, a vibrantly layered mix of textures, temperatures and spicy-savory-tangy-sweet flavors. I’m telling you, people: so good you’ll want to cry.
adapted from Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, 2006
- pork pâte (preferably peppery country-style)
- jalapeno pepper, thinly sliced
- mayonnaise or green garlic aïoli
- quick-pickled daikon and carrot (recipe follows)
- English cucumber, washed and cut into thin strips or rounds
- cilantro, roughly chopped or left in sprigs
- grilled pork (see my preceding recipe), roasted chicken, or other flavorful meats
- Maggi seasoning (optional)
- rolls or a 7″ section of baguette (look for airy, not too crusty bread)
Crisp soft bread, if needed, in a 325 degree oven. Slit in half (not all the way through) and tear out some of the stuffing from the rolls. Spread the bottom of each roll with pâte and the top with mayonnaise. Dash a bit of Maggi seasoning on each side, if using. Layer the sandwich with slices of cucumber, pork, pickled carrot & daikon, jalapeno and cilantro.
Note: Maggi brand seasoning is a Swiss product that’s popular in Southeast Asian cooking; you can find it it most Asian markets. (Maggi’s secret ingredient? MSG. I’m totally okay with that, you may not be.)
Quick-Pickled Daikon and Carrot (Ðô’ Chua)
adapted from Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, 2006; makes about 1 1/2 C
- 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
- 1/2 lb daikon radish, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
- 1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp + 1/4 C sugar, divided
- 3/4 C distilled white vinegar
- 3/4 C water
In a medium bowl, sprinkle the vegetables with salt and 2 tsp sugar. Knead so the vegetables relax and let out their water, about 2-3 minutes. Once the vegetables are very pliable, drain in a colander and rinse under cold water. Press to remove excess water. Mix the remaining ingredients to make a brine and pour over the vegetables to cover. Marinate one hour. Keeps four weeks.
Note: Conventional red radishes can be substituted for the daikon; thinly slice into rounds.