At the end of this, you are going to look in incredulity and say, all this column just about a sandwich? Well yes, but please bear with me. Not just any old sandwich but one that the late Anthony Bourdain, no less, declared the best ever.
Once you’ve embarked on a food tour in Vietnam, Bourdain’s name crops up a lot. If you haven’t seen his TV programmes, particularly No Reservations, keep an eye out and catch them if you can. He declared his love for the country, its people and its food. Having just returned from a couple of weeks there, I can understand why. Hoi An was once an important port, from which both Chinese and Japanese merchants plied their trade. Having silted up it lost its strategic importance, but is now a very pretty place with an architecturally important Old Town, and a lot of very good places to eat. We spent a day walking and eating. At Quân Thắng House we ate dumplings in the shape of roses made by the descendants of the people who built the house 400 years ago. In a side street we sampled cao lầu, a noodle dish unique to Hoi An, the noodles darkened with ash from an island in the bay, and made using water from there.
And at some stage we followed directly in the footsteps of the great Anthony. You will be aware that Indochina was once a French colony. Unlike we British in India, France showed no inkling to grant independence to Vietnam. The resulting war had been going on for nearly two decades before the Americans stepped in. Although you seldom hear French spoken these days it is no surprise that France left its culinary mark, in the shape of bread.
For me, the baguette is King of Breads; however, they don’t stay fresh for long, even in the relatively cool climate of France. With the extreme temperatures and humidity of Vietnam, it’s even harder. Yet bahn mi (pronounced ban me – the word simply means bread) always seem to be crisp. Some bright spark had the idea to use a bit of rice flour as well as wheat. Where you have baguettes you have the basis for a great sandwich: and at Bánh mì Phượng at 2B Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hoi An, you find some of the best ever. The mixed sandwich, as sampled by both Bourdain and Johnston, is one of the greatest ever, even if some of the combinations seem a little unlikely. You will need the Cha Siu pork from last week’s Tom Cooks! My reference to Cha Siu sauce is simply the residue left in the pan with the excess fat poured off. The Phượng family, who have been made very rich by the association, apparently import the pate. A lot of recipes refer to Maggi sauce, which is a cousin of soy and Worcester. I prefer the Cha Siu. You could substitute fresh chill for the chilli sauce.
Mixed Banh Mi
For the pickled vegetables
2 carrots, finely shredded; and equal quantity of shredded mooli or radish; 3 tsp Maldon salt; 125ml vinegar (rice wine or white wine or cider vinegar); 60g caster sugar.
Shred the vegetables. Place in a colander and sprinkle with a third of the salt. Leave for 20 – 30 minutes, then rinse and pat dry and put in a bowl. Gently melt the sugar in the vinegar, with the rest of the salt. Once the sugar has melted, bring to the boil and pour over the vegetables. Leave for 20 minutes, more if you want a stronger pickle flavour.
For the sandwich (should be enough for 2, but you may be tempted to scoff the lot yourself)
One banh mi or 30cm baguette split longways and scooped out; butter or mayonnaise; smooth liver pate; cha siu pork; cha siu sauce; hot chilli sauce or thinly sliced chilli; pickled vegetables; sliced cucumber (optional); fresh herbs, ideally at least two from Asian basil, coriander and mint.
Spread one half of the bread with butter or mayonnaise, the other with a thin layer of pate. Add a generous layer of pork topped with the cha siu sauce, then add chilli sauce or chillies, pickled vegetables, cucumber slices if using, then, finally, a sprinkling of fresh herbs.