Banh Mi (Pronounced Bun Meee), also known as a pork roll has been one of those food items that I can always remember eating. Growing up in Australia, our family would drive three hours to the Western Sydney town of Cabramatta where the greatest concentration of Vietnamese people and businesses were located. There, we’d get our fix of Pho, top up on the difficult to find groceries and purchase ten rolls of banh mi to take home. Half of the order we’d immediately demolish and the remaining ones we’d request separate containers for the filling and for no soy sauce seasoning to be added so that the bread wouldn’t get too soggy during the trip home.
When I moved to Sydney, I began eating banh mi at least twice a week as more banh mi shops were opening closer to work and became the affordable alternative to the $10 sandwiches in the CBD. My enjoyment of these fresh, crispy, meaty and atomic spicy parcels soon turned into an obsession, where I’d go on banh mi adventures throughout Sydney to find where the best rolls were. Like so many other banh mi addicts, I decided that Marrickville Pork Roll, a hole in the wall shop in the city’s Inner West, consistently cranked out the best tasting banh mi in Sydney. It has since served as the benchmark for all things banh mi related.
On every visit, there would be a line up to twenty metres long that extended out of the shop and up the road. Barely three people could fit behind the shop counter; with two women manning the production line and a young man taking the orders and money.
The rolls there were always plump, meaty, dressed with their own special sauce and laced with the right amount of chillies to induce a case of the chilli hiccups. On most occasions I’d get two rolls; one for now and one for later. However, by the time I’d reach home, the only evidence there was banh mi on the scene were the ridiculous amount of bread crumbs down the front of my shirt and on the driver seat. When I sold my car before leaving on this trip, there were still sauce stains on the driver seat despite having it cleaned inside and out.
What makes the perfect banh mi?
A banh mi isn’t complicated. If you break it down into its individual components, you’ll have: The roll, the protein fillings, pickles, pate/mayonnaise, seasoning and garnishing. Although it is important for each of the individual components to be of a high quality, the secret is not to have one ingredient steal the limelight. Banh Mi eaters are extremely picky – given a bad experience and they won’t return. However, give them a roll that tick all of the boxes, they will reward the vendor with fierce loyalty, and let the internet world know every time they are eating one.
The bread roll
This is the vessel in which the precious cargo is delivered in. It’s the first thing that your taste buds come into contact with so first impressions matter here. It needs to be fresh, fluffy and airy on the inside and crispy enough on the outside to the point where your gums are on the brink of being shredded. It sounds sadistic, but who said eating the perfect banh mi was safe?
The original filling used is pork. Up to three types, but the most commonly used is Cha Lua (a Vietnamese version of Devon) and pork belly (can be roasted or braised depending where you are). Other variations of filling are: fish cake, pork meatballs, grilled marinated pork skewers and grilled sausage mince. A banh mi doesn’t discriminate and loves all fillings as there’s no right or wrong filling. Trialing new fillings is the best part about eating banh mi, however my favourite is grilled pork sausage mince (nem nuong).
I love pickles so for me, like a first date, the quality of pickles will most likely determine whether or not I’ll continue my relationship with that particular banh mi. Pickles, should be a combination of grated carrots and daikon radish and they play an important role in offsetting the richness of the pork and pate. I’ve seen banh mi that only have carrot and in my opinion, is a sign of how much of a tight arse that vendor is. Pickled daikon gives the overall flavour some extra pizzazz in your mouth. It’s like the cool sensation that you feel when having your hair washed with the fresh and minty conditioner at the hairdressers.
The spreadables: Pate and mayonnaise
The most common pate used is pork pate but I’ve seen others use chicken liver pate – I have no preference so either works. As long as it’s smooth, applied all the way to the edge of the roll and not too bitter.
I’ve seen various incarnations of mayonnaise and can’t quite put my finger on its role other than to add richness and to trick the brain into believing it’s eating more than it actually is. Traditional mayonnaise that is used is almost translucent, jelly like and has next to no flavour flavour. In my opinion, its primary role is to act as a platform for the pate and seasoning sauce to mingle about and end up sticking to your licks, making the over experience quite moorish.
Seasoning and garnishes
Seasoning: The general rule of thumb is that the more expensive the soy sauce, the better it is. That may work for sushi, but for banh mi, Maggi Seasoning works a charm. The injection of umami boosts the meatiness of the roll, sending out those feel good signals like receiving free hugs from a hippy. I love this shit so much that I add it to my spaghetti bolognese.
Heat: I love chillies and if it’s not burning a hole in my mouth and releasing a barrage of endorphins into my bloodstream then there’s not enough chilli. In my experience of eating banh mi, I’ve only ever seen fresh birds eye chillies. In Vietnam, I’ve seen some use chilli sauce that’s and unnatural and bright orange or radioactive like in colour – I don’t return to those places.
Added texture: There should be a long baton of cucumber, not thin strips as the texture would become lost amongst the pickles.
Herbs: The final ingredient is a simple stalk of coriander and a baton of green onion (scallion) to add freshness and an additional vegetable crunch and flavour. I’ve never seen any other herb used and it’s probably for a good reason as well.
Other: I’d like to note that I recently experienced a banh mi with a sprinkling of pork crackling which I’ve never experienced anywhere. It’s this ingenuity that can potentially elevate a banh mi to a whole to level ahead of the competition. Unfortunately it fell short in most of the other criteria above.
A banh mi is meant to be consumed almost immediately. From the moment the pate and sauce comes in contact with the bread, it’s a race against the clock as the overall quality of the bread begins to diminish. At my uncontrollable peak of eating banh mi at work, I would be halfway through eating it by the time I would reach the work lift and then finish it by the time I reached my work desk – it’s like a drug.
What do I look for in my banh mi eating experience? The layering of textures is the most important. At first, it’s the crunch and texture of the bread and the pickles and then how they contrast and mingle with the soft meat, pate, mayonnaise and sauce. As mentioned earlier, no single ingredient should dominate. A great one should make your eyes roll into the back of your head from pure enjoyment.
One does not simply eat a banh mi without creating a mess. Bread crumbs are guaranteed to end up all over oneself, and with the pate, mayonnaise and sauce mingling together, there is bound to be leakage from the roll. The best part is when you get to the final two inches with a bit of every ingredient still clinging onto the edge of the roll which is now half soaked but still with some crispiness remaining in the pointy end of the roll. That final bite is the most bittersweet.
I now living in Saigon where there are so many banh mi shops and carts. it’s impossible to walk a few minutes without being tempted to see what type of filling each place offers. At under $1 for a roll, it’s easy too easy to make an excuse to have one for every meal of the day in search for the ultimate banh mi. Even when I do find a great one, every time I see a new and untested banh mi vendor, there’s always the voice invading my mind saying that this one could be even better.