Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches were created out of a fusion of ideas from East and West. The sandwich is a delectable marriage, which is why I was extra smitten when Mike Sula emailed to tell me about a cevapcici (“say-vahp-chee-chee”) banh mi. Mike had reported on the sandwich for Chicago’s Reader. He had the nu-wave banh mi at the Sunset Cafe.
Cevapcici banh mi is the creation of the cafe’s owner, Ngoc Diep Stakic. She was born in Saigon and is married to Zel, a realtor originally from Rijeka, Croatia. Zel was showing a restaurant space when Ngoc’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and she said she wanted the space. The birth of cevapcici banh mi was bound to happen. Ngoc also cevapcici cha gio, Mike wrote in his story.
What is cevapcici? Little grilled sausages that are shaped from seasoned ground meat. It’s a super popular dish of the Balkans, and is related to Middle Eastern kofte kebabs. Cevapcici also go by cevapi. There’s a size difference between the terms, the former being small ones. Regardless, the meat is shaped like a sausage but there’s no casing. They reminded me of nem liu, central Vietnamese grilled meatballs that are eaten with lettuce, herbs and rice paper.
You can use one kind of meat, combine two kinds or three kinds of ground meat. Choose from beef, pork, or lamb. In the Viet spirit, I combined beef and pork. In an Asian vein, I incorporated a little chile heat via Korean gochugaru.
The most intriguing aspect of the cevapi and cevapcici is the use of baking soda (I’ve seen club soda in cookbooks too). Asian cooks sometimes use soda as a tenderizer for beef destined for stir-fries. A tiny bit is used in the marinade to give a soft, silky texture. A lot can leave a metallic, off taste.
The soda is part of the norm for cevapi so I tried it out. Instead of tender meat, the result was a springy, sausage-like texture. It bound the meat and made it plump up a bit during cooking too. However, I felt like it muted flavors a bit because I didn’t taste the chile or garlic as much. Sometimes garlic in meat patties can be overly strong too, but the soda countered that; no post-banh mi burps.
I’ve written the recipe below for you to tinker with. You can go bold with the seasonings, if you like. I originally used 3/4 teaspoon of soda but you could drop down to 1/2 teaspoon, if you want to mitigate the springy texture. It’s just a little ground meat sausage.
The sliced raw onion is akin to raw onion on a burger. You want to have its funky edge. Just make sure it’s not a first-date night.
These were fun to make and you can reheat them (undercook them slightly). I made cevapi-size sausages so they’d be easy to cook, but when I put them into the banh mi, I halved them (as if I’d made them cevapcici size!) so they would lay flat. Bulky banh mi is no bueno to eat.
I'm new to cevapi/cevapcici. Just saying the word makes me giggle. What are your experiences with it?
Cevapcici Sausage Banh Mi
Yield: 24 sausages, for 6 sandwiches
- 1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced and mashed with a knife or put through a press
- 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons Korean gochugaru, hot paprika, or other medium-hot ground chile
- 1/2 pound ground pork, about 85% lean
- 1 pound ground beef, chuck preferred
- Half a small red onion, thinly sliced
- A little oil, for the grill
- In a bowl, combine the garlic, baking soda, salt, pepper, and ground chile. Add the ground pork and beef. Mix by hand to combine well.
- Form into 24 sausages, each one resembling a fat finger. Set aside, or cover and chill for up to 8 hours (return to room temperature before cooking). Slice the onion and soak in water for 10 minutes to remove some of its harshness; drain and set aside.
- Grill over a medium-high heat. Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill. A cast-iron stovetop grill works exceptionally well. Regardless of cooking approach, oil the grates lightly before setting the sausages on top of them. Grill for 6 to 8 minutes, turning occasionally to coax even cooking and browning. Cool on a rack or plate for a few minutes before using for banh mi.
- Halve the sausages lengthwise before sliding them into bread to make banh mi. If you’re not using Sriracha aioli and the fresh chiles aren’t enough, add a drizzle of Sriracha chile sauce on top of the meat before adding the pickles, onion, chile, cucumber, and cilantro.