I DIDN’T come up with a banh mi recipe under the illusion that I could improve the classic Vietnamese sandwich.
To my mind, that mouth-tingling combination of intensely flavored meats, crunchy daikon pickles, herbs, mayonnaise and hot sauce is poetry on a crusty bun, wanting for nothing other than a hungry eater to devour it.
But since there are no banh mi places near me, I had to make my own.
Authenticity was not the goal. Nor was coming up with a newfangled banh mi variation like so many I’ve been seeing around town lately (Baoguette’s sloppy Joe banh mi with spicy curry beef and green mango, for example).
I wanted a sandwich that, with quick work, would maintain the porky-pickled-fiery essence of a classic banh mi with easy-to-find ingredients.
At first I tried a version of my favorite style, packed with Vietnamese cold cuts and silken pâté. I tried substituting Italian mortadella and French country pâté. But even when mixed with quick-pickled daikon and carrots and squirts of mayonnaise and sriracha, the sandwich tasted strangely flat.
This is probably because the Vietnamese cold cuts, including the bolognalike sausage called cha lua that’s a staple in my favorite banh mi, are seasoned with fish sauce and spices, which makes them entirely different from the French and Italian flavorings.
So, for the next round, I abandoned the charcuterie route and decided to focus on another style of banh mi made primarily from grilled pork. Pork loin and chops are usually used for this type of banh mi, but it can be hard to get them to absorb enough intense flavor of hot sauce and fish sauce without lengthy marinating.
Ground pork, however, would instantly suck up seasonings and add a loose shagginess to each mouthful. To bind it together so it didn’t fall out of the bread as I ate it, I stirred the mayonnaise and hot sauce directly into the pan with the meat.
Then I stuffed it into an airy roll along with my pickled vegetables for crunch and acidity, sprigs of cilantro and mint for freshness and slivers of jalapeño to cut the richness of the mayonnaise-laden pork.
And this hungry eater gobbled it up, my banh mi cravings thoroughly satisfied — at least for the moment.
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