1997 – Drfugawe Discovers the Existence of Banh Mi

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When I first came to Oregon in 1997, one of my pleasant surprises was the number of Asian groceries – Yes, there were Asian groceries in Jacksonville, where I was moving from, but not in the number, or as well stocked as these I was now seeing. I would often simply spend several hours wandering the aisles of my favorites, taking mental notes of new stuff, and adding to my Asian ingredient collection – some of which I’m sure I still have. I was in heaven.

I have a general weakness for all foods Asian – as a food genre, it is easily my favorite, and while alone most of that first year in Oregon, I spent significant amounts of time discovering much about Asian culture through the inventory of those many stores – I still tend to do this, and it annoys my wife to no end.

One day in particular has stuck in my mind – for whatever reason, instead of visiting in the evening, as I usually was wont to do, I chose to do so in the morning. Maybe it was a new place I was seeing for the first time, or there was a particular thing I needed – whatever. As I was checking out, there on the counter next to the register was a large box of wrapped sandwiches – at least they looked like sandwiches – no visible identification – only a handwritten sheet attached to the box that said, $1.29.

Now, even in 1997, $1.29 was an absurd price for a legitimate sandwich, and more than anything, my curiosity was peaked – “What are these?”, I asked – “Banh Mi”, was the clerk’s reply – “Sandwich?”, was my next question – a quick positive head shake was the response, and I made a quick decision to try one of these mysteries – the satisfaction of knowing a new taste alone was worth $1.29.

I remember on my way back to the office that the exciting smell of that still wrapped sandwich was overpowering – I couldn’t resist grabbing it and tearing off the wrapper – and taking a bite. The word “epiphany” has become overused these days, but it fits my emotion of that moment! I was having a taste epiphany. I can recall my immediate conflict between taking one bite after another, for the sake of this new taste discovery – and the intellectual desire to carefully examine the remainder of that sandwich to see what could possibly combine to make such an exciting flavor.

I slipped into my office, closed the door, and began to deconstruct that wonder – the first thing I remember seeing were sprigs of cilantro, not a common sandwich ingredient then, and slivers of carrot along with slivers of something white, later identified as daikon radish – both had been pleasantly pickled. There were also thin slices of jalapeno – not many, but enough to provide an occasional jolt.

And then there was the meat – essentially, for me, mystery meat! Certainly, the most interesting was something that looked like head cheese, but which had a distinctive licorice flavor – I would later learn that Vietnam has its own versions of Western cold cuts, and head cheese is one – there was also a baloney kind of thing in there as well, and a few slices of chopped ham. But the most distinctive was the head cheese, and it certainly added the most to this fascinating taste discovery. Topping it off was some kind of mayo, but obviously sweeter than that to which I was accustomed, and with tones of garlic.

I’ve come to love this sandwich, maybe above all others – however, I’ve chosen to live in an area with no Banh Mi shops, and so I either buy them in bulk when we are in an “enlightened” area, or I make my own. Yes – I’ve discovered the essence of Banh Mi, and can do a good job of approximating it in my own kitchen. Once you enter the world of Banh Mi, you soon discover that there are many kinds of Banh Mi, and frankly, only a few common denominators. Once you learn to make pickled carrot and daikon (julienne some carrot and diakon, or turnip, and splash it all with some Seasoned Rice Vinegar), and combine it with cilantro, you can pretty much put anything you wish in your Banh Mi.  Maybe the purists would object, but do they hang out in your kitchen?  Mine either!

And then there’s the bread!

Ahh, the bread is the fascinating part! If ever there was a case study in the evolution of a multi-national food, Banh Mi is it! Yes, it looks like it’s made with a French baguette, and well it should. For the Banh Mi owes its invention to the French influence in Vietnam from the early 1850s to 1954, when the French left – that was enough time for some distinct French influences to take hold, perhaps none more apparent today than the Banh Mi baguette.

But is the Vietnamese baguette today the same one that was introduced to Vietnam by the French? Well, that’s a very good question – and perhaps an even better question is, “Is the Banh Mi baguette being used today in the U.S., simply the same as that being baked as a French baguette, or is it in some ways different?”

My research into these questions (and I’m a driven person!) has led me to believe that among some U.S., Banh Mi bakeries (and yes, there are many!), there are some who are simply baking a full wheat baguette. However, I also think that there are some purists at work out there who are making the same baguette here that they remember from Vietnam – and that baguette would have probably have had a portion of rice flour in it, since wheat flour during the French occupation was an expensive commodity, and the Vietnamese were good at making cultural substitutions for these things.

However, my research also tells me (as well as my own baking of several rice flour baguettes) that a totally rice flour baguette is not necessarily a good thing! Since rice flour has no gluten, it will not rise, and produces a leaden loaf, and does so even when combined with significant amounts of wheat flour. I can attest that a 50% rice flour baguette is anything but light and airy, which is what we seek in a Banh Mi baguette.

But I can also tell you that at lesser percentages, the addition of some rice flour may indeed change the character of the baguette – whether for the better is in the purview of the eater – to me, it certainly changed the nature of the dough (I found it easier to work with) and it rose eagerly. Although I assumed that a softer flour would produce a more pleasing texture, and that it was likely that only soft flours were available in Vietnam during that period, my use of cake flour and a 28% rice flour addition did not produce a more pleasing loaf than did the use of the higher protein all purpose flour.

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For those of you who are intellectually curious, and perhaps fascinated with both the Banh Mi sandwich and the bread used to make it, I will share the current best recipe I’ve found/adapted for the purpose of creating a worthy Banh Mi baguette – however, my distinct sense is that this is a work in progress, and that I’ve/We’ve not yet arrived at the best final choice.  There are not a lot of recipes for Banh Mi bread on the net – as one writer familiar with Vietnamese culture said, these breads are simply not made at home, since few have home ovens, and they are so easily and cheaply obtained – and here in the U.S., it’s not in the interest of the Vietnamese baker to be revealing his formulas.  So, this is the best we have.

I would love to hear from those of you who decide to jump in this pool of discovery.

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Vietnamese Banh Mi Baguettes

used as found at: http://www.abreadaday.com/

(my comments in parentheses)

18 ounces/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided, plus extra as needed
5 ounces/1 cup very fine rice flour
1 tablespoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons salt or 1 tablespoon kosher salt
14 oz./1 3/4 cups water, at room temperature
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly (I would make this optional, I think it added to a tenderness of the crumb without improving)

1.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together 2 cups of the all-purpose flour, all of the rice flour, yeast, sugar, and salt.  Add the water and butter.  Using the paddle attachment, mix at low speed until thoroughly blended, about 1 to 2 minutes.

2.  Switch to the dough hook, and continue mixing at low speed.  Add enough of the remaining all-purpose flour until a moderately stiff dough forms; you may need more or less than the reserved 2 cup.  The dough should clear the sides of the bowl, but not be too stiff.  Increase the speed to medium-low, and continue kneading for 7 to 8 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.

3.  Transfer the dough to a large, lightly-oiled bowl.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature until doubled in size, about 45 to 60 minutes.

4.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and divide into three equal pieces.  Shape each into an round ball, then into an oblong loaf shape.  Cover again, and let rest for about 10 minutes.  Lightly grease a large baking sheet, or line with parchment paper.

5.  Working with one piece at a time, and keeping the other covered, gently press each piece into a flat oval.  Starting with a long side, roll up into a long cylinder.  Set aside, covered, while shaping the other piece.

6.  Rolling underneath flat palms, or pulling gently as needed, lengthen each piece into a long, thin rope, about 18 to 20 inches long.  Transfer carefully to the prepared baking sheet.  Cover loosely with lightly oiled plastic wrap, and let rise for 45 to 60 minutes, or until doubled in size.  Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450º F, and place another baking sheet or oven-safe pan on a rack in the bottom third of the oven.  Or, if you have a baking stone, use it instead, heating it with the oven.

7.  Using a sharp serrated knife or clean razor blade, make 3 or 4 gentle but decisive slashes in the top of each loaf at a 45º angle, evenly spaced.  Don’t press into the dough, just let the weight and sharpness of the blade cut into the dough as you pull it across the surface.  If the dough deflates, let it recover for an additional 10 to 15 minutes.  Spray or sprinkle the bread with water, and transfer the bread to the oven (or baking stone, if using).  Bake for 5 minutes, spraying the dough with water every minute or two.

8.  After 5 minutes, reduce the temperature to 400º F, and continue baking for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until deeply golden brown and fully baked.  An instant-read thermometer should register about 205º to 210º F when inserted into the center.  Remove the bread to a wire rack to cool fully before slicing.

(My Notes:

  • Yes, I’d try to get a very fine rice flour, since a course grind may add a grainy texture to the crumb.

  • You may wish to continue experimenting with the percentage of rice flour in here – my next baking will be with a 20%, or even 15% addition – that should be interesting.

  • If I can trust my calculation, this is a 61% hydration dough, and it mixes well on the stand mixer, and handles very well out of the bowl as well – nice dough!

  • I made small, individual rolls by equally dividing the dough into eight parts, and forming into 5×3 inch rectangles, and rolling them into thick ropes about 6-7 inches long – the dough easily allowed this, even without a rest.)

I’d love to hear from anyone who experiments with this formula, or who is aware of the formula being used by a Vietnamese baker – and I would not be surprised to learn that the ideal level for rice flour in this bread is far less than that being used above.

I’m going to ask Susan at WildYeast to add this post to this week’s YeastSpotting collection – if you are not familiar with both of those, check them out.

Edit Followup: I have just been reading Elizabeth David’s excellent, “English Bread & Yeast Cookery”, and noticed a reference to Rice Bread – she notes that Rice Bread has been made in England since the mid 1800s, and rice was initially used -along with wheat flour- because it was cheaper.  I found this quite interesting, since the Vietnamese would have used rice for the same reason during the French occupation.  Interestingly, the recipes quoted by David in her book all use regular rice which has been cooked until very soft in a 1/3 ratio with water, and then incorporated with the wheat flour, at levels from 1/14th to 1/6th rice by weight.  She states this lightens the crumb and keeps the crust from hardening.  I’m now wondering if the Vietnamese bakers would have used regular rice in their breads, and/or if they still do so in the U.S.  I will certainly try this in one of my upcoming re-dos of my rice rolls.

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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9 Responses to 1997 – Drfugawe Discovers the Existence of Banh Mi

  1. Beth says:

    Excellent post, and so well-researched! I’m so glad you liked my recipe; it was certainly a hit amongst my friends. I absolutely agree with your assessment of that first taste of banh mi. It’s like your eyes have been made clear, and you are tasting something completely different and extraordinary.

    Keep up the good work!
    Beth

  2. drfugawe says:

    Thank you, Beth, for your inspiration – and for being a gracious “provider”. Best wishes with your project and your work.

  3. Mimi says:

    Great looking baguettes. So what are you currently filling them with besides pickled veggies (or do I dare to ask since you were waxing poetic about the head cheese?)

  4. drfugawe says:

    Hi Mimi,
    Actually, the head cheese is a unique Vietnamese thing – so I think it’s only available in an Asian grocery – my most common filling has been roasted pork – I found a nice recipe that has you marinate the pork in fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, and oil – then roast – that’s what’s on the roll at the top of this page. Quite nice.

  5. When I was a graduate student I did my community health rotation — conicidentally, also in 1997 — in an area of San Jose heavily populated with Asian groceries. My classmates and I discovered the “$1.00 Vietnamese sandwich” (we didn’t know what it was called then), and that became lunch every single day. Thanks for the memory, and the recipe!

  6. Mimi says:

    Now that’s a sandwich filling! You must do a follow up with the pork recipe so that I can make these!!

  7. stacy says:

    Waaaah, I have been craving banh mi for a week! We just moved so I don’t where to get one here. Maybe I will finally be motivated enough to check out the Vietnamese grocery store we drove past…

  8. Pingback: Vietnamese Baguettes, Revisited « The Lost World of Drfugawe

  9. Mai says:

    This is a great article! It is so hard to find a reciepe for the Vietnamese Buns. I’m so glad that you posted this! Thanks.

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