I've posted several times about Vietnamese banh mi but realized that I'd never presented a full-fledged, master recipe, nor have I provided some history about the popular Vietnamese snack. First off, a bit about sandwiches themselves. Thank heavens for John Montagu (1718-1792), 4th Earl of Sandwich, who habitually sent for cold meat in between two slices of bread so that he wouldn't have to break away from the gambling tables to eat. Little did he know how he'd impact global eating practices, let alone that of a small country like Vietnam!
There is essentially one sandwich in Vietnamese cooking and it is quite a tour de force. It started out very simply, with baguette smeared with liver pate and that was it. That's how my mom knew it in the 1940s when she was growing up in Northern Vietnam. What we know today as banh mi is a light, crispy small baguette that is split and hollowed before it is invariably filled with homemade mayonnaise or butter (which I don't like), sliced chili pepper, cilantro leaves, cucumber, a tangy-sweet daikon and carrot pickle (do chua), and a drizzle of soy sauce. The variation comes in when you choose what protein component(s) will be center stage. The classic version, banh mi thit nguoi—referred to as the "special" (dac biet) at Vietnamese delis, includes a smearing of housemade liver pâté and thin slices of various Vietnamese cold cuts. Other filling options include, but are not limited to, roasted chicken, grilled pork, crunchy julienned pork skin (bì), Chinese char siu pork, and tofu. This delicious, fanciful version was popularized by Southern Vietnamese, particularly those in Saigon, and is what we know abroad today and in most of Vietnam too.
In the early 1980s, these sandwiches occupied the food craze spotlight in the Vietnamese-American community. A sandwich war of sorts ensued in Little Saigon, California, where entrepreneurial deli owners posted banners advertising low prices ($1 or $1.25) and special offers like "Buy 2 Get 1 Free". Word spread about who had the best deal and best product. There were light-hearted squabbles over which deli should have your loyalty. Our family, like other folks who can't resist a good bargain, bought a dozen sandwiches at a time—veggies on the side so that the bread wouldn't get soggy on the way home. After eating and analyzing a fair number of so-so sandwiches (you eventually get what you pay for), we started making them ourselves—the genesis of this banh mi recipe.