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The Best Part of the Banh Mi

May 14, 2014

Something horrible happened yesterday. All Over Albany ran an Eat This! that suggested its readers go out to the newly reimagined Reel Seafood and order the impossible: a banh mi wrap.

“Don’t you mean ‘improbable’? Because I can see quite clearly from the picture, it exists.”

No. No, I don’t. As Deanna points out in her story, “banh mi” means bread. Trying to make a banh mi without bread is like making an omelette without eggs or risotto without rice. Calling it a banh mi wrap would simply imply that you’ve taken bread and encased it within a tortilla, and that’s not what is happening here.

For what it’s worth, you also can’t have a muffaletta taco. That sandwich is also named after the bread on which its served.

If any of this is sounding familiar, it’s because I wrote a full post on the evils of wraps just last month. It even detailed the ingredients of the dreaded “spinach” tortilla similar to the one shown in the AOA story. So I don’t want to rehash that or pick apart the dish in yesterday’s story ingredient by ingredient. That hardly seems productive. And Deanna has good taste, so I’m sure–wrap aside–the thing is truly delicious.

But I do want to take this chance to clear up a key point about the classic Vietnamese sandwich.

Deanna recognizes the great volume of disappointing banh mi in the Capital Region. And indeed she is correct in her assessment of the landscape and identifying one of the critical problems: nobody can get the right bread for the sandwich. Nobody is making it in Albany, and nobody has been able to bring it in from an actual Vietnamese bakery.

Which is primarily why she lauds Reel Seafood for taking a leap and breaking the mold with a wrap. Deanna writes, “In going this direction, it replicates the best part of the sandwich (the flavors) while avoiding its most common downfall (again, the bread).”

Clearly this is where she and I part ways. So let’s talk about the best part of the banh mi.

You could ask yourself, why are banh mi so popular in the first place? There was some fellow who wrote about this a few years ago. Here’s part of what he had to say:

Yes, it’s delicious. But a lot of things that are delicious do not have such a devoted following and avid fan base. It’s also a bit exotic, and at the same time familiar . . . I have a different argument. I say the banh mi enjoys its current state of popularity because the thing is just so impossibly inexpensive, especially in relationship to its deliciousness.

The best part about the banh mi is its value. But there is something else that I love about this sandwich, and that is its history.

World history is long and complicated. When most Americans think about Vietnam, and the country’s past, I reckon it conjures images of Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. As sad a state of affairs as it may be, if it weren’t for the banh mi, I might never have known about the period of French colonialism in the nation.

The Vietnamese took French bread and made it their own. And I am reminded of this every time I come face to face with one of these sandwiches. The addition of rice flour gives this interpretation of a baguette its remarkable shattering crust. And this contrast of textures (in addition to the contrasts of flavors and temperatures) is yet another thing which makes the sandwich great.

But the bread isn’t the only cross cultural component of this dish. It’s also the egg yolk enriched butter that sometimes is closer to mayonnaise, but occasionally called hollandaise. And the addition of pate as a funky layer of flavor is quite French indeed.

Calling something a banh mi while depriving it of its history, robbing it of its value, and eliminating its one defining characteristic is simply wrong. The specific details of how this one at Reel Seafood went wrong are immaterial. Fortunately, I’m not so desperate for the flavors of grilled meat and pickled veggies that I have to subject myself to this abomination.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2014 11:11 am

    “the banh mi enjoys its current state of popularity because the thing is just so impossibly inexpensive…”

    Alas, Profussor, by mentioning banh mi and inexpensive in the same sentence you have unleashed the hounds of Hell, just as you did in the last post. I will refer you to http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/07/the-vietnamese-sandwich-banh-mi-in-america/?_php=true&_type=blogs&partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0 and advise you to be ready for the swarm of folks who will point out to you that they are inexpensive only because of exploitation of immigrant women and that you are better off, both ethically and spiritually, paying David Chang $45 or whatever he charges these days.

  2. May 14, 2014 11:19 am

    Also, assuming it’s Kewpie or equivalent, the secret ingredient in the mayo isn’t just raw egg yolks. It’s this: http://www.burntmyfingers.com/kewpie-mayonnaise/

  3. May 14, 2014 1:17 pm

    Welp, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.

    Where to start in reply?

    Banh mi means bread, we both agree on that. Maybe the problem is that simply calling a sandwich “banh mi” is the real issue. Perhaps they should all be called, “Vietnamese sandwiches,” then further qualify with “on banh mi” or “on a hoagie roll” or “in a wrap.” Eh?

    You say the best part is the bread but I think you’re wrong. If the filling is good and the bread sucks, the sandwich can still be enjoyed. But if the opposite occurs, the whole thing is kind of ruined. Filling alone is delicious. Bread alone is okay. Even really scrumptious bread needs a little butter or oil, in my opinion.

    People make risotto all the time without rice. But they again qualify it by calling it “spelt risotto” or something to that effect. Which is why what RSCo. is doing is okay: They aren’t just calling is banh mi, they are calling it a banh mi wrap.

    You say, “Calling something a banh mi while depriving it of its history, robbing it of its value, and eliminating its one defining characteristic is simply wrong.” As a student of history, an ardent supporter of cultural reference and understanding in historical context, I agree. But do people always recall the origins of pizza when they add things like sausage or cook it more as a casserole than as the flat-crusted traditional offering? Do they say deep-dish style “pizza?” Nope. just pizza. Even though pizza is a protected cultural entity in the EU.

    Welcome to America, where we steal things from other lands and perpetually fuck them up.

    Points given for defend-able argument. Points deductive for trying to make it uni-lateral.

    Even if you will never eat the bastardized banh mi (which is quite delicious), you should try basically anything else there. The food is really damn good.

    • May 14, 2014 1:57 pm

      But that thing wasn’t even remotely Vietnamese…. It had sticky rice and a ponzu sauce. Why not call it a Shrimp Maki Wrap or something else vaguely Japanese-esque… All your points above are valid, but not applicable in this case. This is like someone calling a grilled cheese sandwich w/tomato a “pizza.”

      • May 14, 2014 4:29 pm

        I think they are applicable or I wouldn’t have said them. But thanks for noting they are at least valid.

      • May 14, 2014 9:04 pm

        As the Vietnamese half of the blog, I have a hard time calling this banh mi inspired or even Vietnamese inspired by just slapping on some pickled carrots and sprigs of cilantro. I’d be more inclined to call it an Asian burrito if anything.

        Did the shrimp have any seasoning like fish sauce? Some familiar Vietnamese flavors like lemongrass chili, a side of peanut hoisin dipping sauce or actual banh mi elements like a garlic aioli would have made it more legit as a “banh mi wrap”. I just can’t get past the Japanese ponzu or sticky rice.

  4. May 14, 2014 1:57 pm

    Albany has seen a sudden influx of better quality baguettes. While not the same baguette as Daniel is writing about it could serve as a base for a wonderful banh-mi.

    • May 14, 2014 2:29 pm

      Or maybe some local food purveyor with an established relationship to a certain Hudson bakery can custom order some rolls made with rice flour as a vehicle for fine local ham, stunning pate, and amazing French butter (dressed with pickled daikon & carrots and served with plenty of fresh cilantro and sliced jalapenos).

  5. May 14, 2014 4:50 pm

    A few weeks ago I talked to Naomi at Bread and Honey about my idea of a collaboration between her shop and Kim’s… She is already selling to / exchanging goods with the owners of Capital Q, Fin, Bake for You, and possibly more. I love the fact that these shops are able to work together to provide us with the best possible products.

    Naomi mentioned that she had access to a good recipe for a Vietnamese-style baguette and she had been experimenting with it. Daniel, did you get a chance to check out the banh mi at Kim’s before you left? I think they do a really good job with the sandwich ingredients, but the bread they were using – at least when I visited when they first started offering banh mi – was super disappointing.

    I have no idea if Naomi or the owners of Kim’s are interested in this idea… but one can dream! ;)

  6. May 14, 2014 5:15 pm

    Also, I am going to include in this discussion my request that a local business sell a regional themed banh mi called the – “Albanh-mi.” I make myself laugh every time I say “Albanh-mi.”

  7. EPT permalink
    May 15, 2014 7:33 am

    Who cares, don’t you have a real job?

  8. May 15, 2014 5:01 pm

    According to Google Translate, Banh means “cake” and Mi means “noodle”. So, a “cake” made out of the stuff you make noodles from, i.e. a bread with rice flour. (Amusingly, banh has the double meaning of “loaf” just like in English.)

    And EPT, we all do have very important jobs. That’s why we relieve the stress over here.

    • EPT permalink
      May 16, 2014 6:04 pm

      My post was directed at Fussy Little Blog

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