Chef Bao La’s banh mi thit is proof positive that Vietnamese cooks have been using the whole of the pig from long before anyone knew the phrase “nose-to-tail”.
Available from June 12, 2017 at Le Petit Saigon in Wan Chai, the chef’s baguette-style roll is stuffed with five preparations of pork and a healthy dose of chicken liver pate. Those ingredients compete for attention with sweet Vietnamese chilies, spring onions, fish sauce, pickled carrot and daikon and fresh cucumber and coriander. The disparate elements are bound together with a neutral mayonnaise. It’s quite a mouthful.
The national sandwich is also quite a development from the colonial French legacy of eating chicken liver pate on a baguette. “It’s a rough Vietnamese version of a French sandwich,” says Bao.
Cheaper pork, from an animal that obviously contains more meat, is used for bulk. The rich, creamy chicken liver pate is also a little less complex, without the spices used in the French version but still noticeably incorporating cognac.
The chef takes pork belly and brines it before slow cooking it at 72 degrees Celsius overnight and slicing it thinly. Two types of head cheese are made to Bao’s mother’s recipe with nose, cheeks, tongue and belly trimmings – one also has a black vein of shredded wood ear mushroom running through it.
Cha Lua is a pork mousse that the chef, who grew up in Brisbane eating his mother’s banh mi thit for breakfast, steams in banana leaf which adds extra texture. The final layer of porkiness comes from flossed pork, which is also there to add texture.
In Vietnam there’s no rice flour in the dough. That’s just a myth. There’s just flour, a bread improver like ascorbic acid, some of the previous day’s dough and some water. There’s no measuring, just a bucketful here or there. A lot of it is by feel
Chef Bao says he spent more time searching for the right bread than getting the pork preparations right. “In Vietnam, there’s no rice flour in the dough. That’s just a myth. There’s just flour, a bread improver like ascorbic acid, some of the previous day’s dough and some water. There’s no measuring, just a bucketful here or there. A lot of it is by feel.”
The crusty, chewy bread tastes like one the chef found in Dalat in southern Vietnam. As with a number of dishes from the country there are regional variations, says Saigon-based chef Peter Cuong Franklin. Hanoi sandwiches have a stronger emphasis on the charcuterie, while in Saigon sandwiches are “everything in and stuffed to the gills with as many pork cold cuts as available and seasoned with everything from mayonnaise, Maggie sauce, chili and lots of spring onion, cucumber, pickled vegetable and fresh herbs.”
He prefers the central Hoi An bahn mi thit, which has more cooked rather than cured pork fillings and “a crisp, light warm baguette”.
For Bao the more interesting differences come with the time of day. The breakfast banh mi, called banh mi op la, starts with eggs fried in the skillet they are served in, to which is added soy sauce that sizzles as it hits the pan and some pork preparations, all eaten with bread.
If there’s a noticeable distance between this Hong kong version and the Vietnamese sandwich, it’s the price of HK$88 (US$11.30) or 256,000 Vietnamese dong. A bahn mi thit in Vietnam sells for 15,000-20,000 dong, with the most expensive in Saigon priced at 33,000 dong, says Cuong Franklin.
Le Petit Saigon, 16 Wing Fung Street, Wan Chai, tel: 2455 2499