Adventures in eating: Banh mi

by Brian Clarey

There are things I say all the time, like, “Be nice to your brother,” and, “Why did you do that?” and, “Mistakes happen at the last minute.” I also can be heard at least once a week to make a sweeping statement about Greensboro’s Asian restaurants, something to the effect that we have a great concentration and a wide variety of fabulous Asian cuisine, from Korean barbecue to pad Thai to Chinese buffet to Japanese sushi. And I’ll sometimes throw Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine in there as well. What the hell. One dish we do here as well as anybody else in the world is banh mi, basically a Vietnamese po-boy, mainly because we have a pretty sizable Vietnamese population. Don’t think so? Take a drive along High Point Road and look for the Mekong Oriental Market, tucked into the back corner of a strip mall. It’s four aisles of exotic delicacies: pickled duck eggs, yellow lump candy, fresh produce in unmarked bags, frozen fish with the heads still on; jars of chili paste, pickled garlic and kim chee; canned langon, lychee, jackfruit and rambuton; pickled squid and shrimp candy; bean curd and dried sausages. And up by the counter, where a middleaged Vietnamese woman leaned against the glass, a trove of unusual foods wrapped in plastic by the register: sweet rice, smoked fish, oddly-shaped green loaves and some other things I could recognize as food. In a low cardboard box sat a dozen or so banh mi. The sandwich is the product of French influence on Indochine tradition. It is made on a chewy baguette, though a traditional banh mi bun is made from both rice and wheat flour. Tradition also dictates the presence of thinly sliced meat, usually pork, shrimp or beef, and pate or head cheese. But to these traditional French ingredients, the Vietnamese added spicy pickled vegetables, fresh greens and a bastardized form of mayonnaise that is kind of like an aioli, but dense with chili paste. These banh mi were made with roasted and seasoned pork; a fatty and gelatinous head cheese; julienned carrots, peppers, onion and cucumbers pickled in spicy brine and a whole sprig of cilantro. The sandwich is about the interplay of extreme textures and flavors: savory meat and spicy pickles, chewy baguette and crispy vegetables, the magic that happens when fat meets something astringent. I devour the sandwich later at my desk. And at the behest of the Vietnamese woman at the store, I purchased a banh tet, a dish made from gluteneous rice, stuffed with meat or bean paste and wrapped in banana leaves. After she told me white, American men make good husbands, I bought two of them, one stuffed with pork and the other, she told me, vanilla flavored. I also bought some soft sesame candy made with little besides sesame seeds, peanuts, sugar and tapioca flour. At Mekong, they wrap the pickled vegetables separately in plastic to prevent them from soaking into the meat and bread. I wish grocery chains would do the same thing with their prepared sandwiches, which in my experience suffer from wet bread more than half the time. I love banh mi, but they are not very filling. So after I finished my sandwich I tore open the pork banh tet at my desk, sliced it up and offered it around. The only takers were Womack and Snyder. We all agreed it was not too bad — savory and flavorful, and very sticky. The “vanilla” banh tet, however, we found to be inedible — at least to our palates, based on red bean curd and that sticky rice. Honestly, I didn’t keep it in my mouth long enough to discern any of the other flavors. I was glad I had the foresight to pick up that sesame candy, which on the package is called keo me xung hue. It is sort of a mixture between marzipan and gummi, pounded flat into a circle and coated with sesame seeds. It took two of them, with half a bottle of water, to get the funky red bean taste from my mouth.

Mekong Oriental Market 3707 High Point Road Greensboro 336.852.9796

Banh mi(left) and banh tet, which is wrapped in banana leaf, are just two ofthe Vietnamese delicacies available at Mekong Market. (photo by BrianClarey)