Ingle's has expanded its stock of Asian food products, proving conclusively that we live at the throbbing epicenter of the universe. Note the store-brandcoconut milk you can snap up fer cheep.
I live at the dead center of the universe and it’s damned convenient. It’s remote enough that I never worry about traffic but sooner or later everything I need gets sucked in here by mysterious galactic forces.
That’s my operating hypothesis and by God it’s been borne out again. The one part of city life I miss is ethnic food and just the other day I noticed that Ingle’s had expanded its former few square inches of water chestnuts and canned chow mein into shelf after self of Asian products so that the walls seemed to be screaming THAI! THAI! THAI! There are three or four different kinds of sriracha sauce, a box you can make Pad Thai out of like Hamburger Helper, and even a store-brand "Laura Lynn" coconut milk for $1.78 a can.
I used to love the Pad Thai at Mama's, a tiny storefront restaurant on Ringgold Road in Chattanooga, but it went out of business and so far the other couple of Thai places in town can't follow Mama's act. I've looked up recipes but stopped reading by the 25th ingredient. So I expect it's a matter of time before I try making the Ingle's Pad-Thai-in-a-box.
Though Pad Thai from scratch was too much for me, there are a couple of other Asian dishes that have become part of my repertoire because around here making them was about the only way I could feasibly eat them. With the Asian Invasion at Ingle's I thought this might be a good chance to share them.
The first, which we'll cover today, is banh mi, the Vietnamese national sandwich that once you have tasted it you spend the rest of your life waiting to eat another one. You will recall that for part of its troubled history, Vietnam was under the dominion of France. Colonialism was responsible for a lot of the blood and strife that would characterize the world's 20th-century history, but in this case it made for one hell of a sandwich. The tradition of French bread-baking mates with inscrutable Vietnamese flavors—what could be nicer?
I had my first banh mi (pronounce it to rhyme with "on me") at Lee's Bakery in Atlanta while visiting my friend Paula who worked nearby and could have one for lunch any time she wanted one. I think it was that gustatory envy that got me started trying to make my own.
What makes banh mi banh mi is the crisp pickled vegetables that garnish it and these were the hardest to duplicate for a novice. This was before Ingle's expanded its Asian section, of course, so I spent some time combing the shelves of Chattanooga's Oriental food stores. Not knowing what I wanted, I got several substances in cans and bottles that turned out to be a little too damn inscrutable. There was some slug-like gray canned eggplant product I really did end up burying in the garden.
What saved me was—what else, duckie?—the Internet. I found a recipe not just for banh mi but for the pickles that are its sine qua non at vietworldkitchen.com. I'll give you the pickle recipe first because that's the order you need to make it in. The blog attributes this recipe in turn to: Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors (2006, Ten Speed Press)
Daikon and Carrot Pickle
Makes about 3 cups
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 pound daikons, each no larger than 2 inches in diameter, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar
1 cup lukewarm water
1. Place the carrot and daikons in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Use your hands to knead the vegetables for about 3 minutes, expelling the water from them. They will soften and liquid will pool at the bottom of the bowl. Stop kneading when you can bend a piece of daikon so that the ends touch but the daikon does not break. The vegetables should have lost about one-fourth of their volume. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water, then press gently to expel extra water. Return the vegetables to the bowl if you plan to eat them soon, or transfer them to a 1-quart jar for longer storage.
2. To make the brine, in a bowl, combine the 1/2 cup sugar, the vinegar, and the water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the vegetables. The brine should cover the vegetables. Let the vegetables marinate in the brine for at least 1 hour before eating. They will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks. Beyond that point, they get tired.
Chef Guevara's note: "Kneading" the vegetable was way too much for the likes of me. I just mix the salt and sugar in with them and let them sit there while I do something else. This works fine. Also, I don't worry about how long they keep in the refrigerator before they get "tired." Around here they don't usually last that long but at times when they have. I haven't noticed any decline in quality. For the brine, I like it a bit heavier on the vinegar and lighter on the water, like 1 1/2 cups vinegar to 1 of water.
Ingle's hasn't got daikons so far though I expect the universe will suck them in sooner or later. Meanwhile you can buy them at an Asian food market in Chattanooga—I like the one on Hixson Pike or—and this may surprise you—grow them yourself. My Rising Fawn friend Cheri Miller had a good spring crop of them last year and told me about it, so I found seeds at another Asian market in Huntsville and had an excellent winter crop myself. They are nothing but a sort of turnip and they grow big and loom out of the ground at you with no trouble at all.
As for carrots, earth mama though I am I couldn't bring myself to cut them into matchsticks when you can get those julienned ones in the produce section for $1.49.
You can go to vietkitchen.com for the banh mi sandwich recipe itself, but I have simplified it and "Dade-ified" a little over time. For the bread, I like to buy those skinny baguettes Ingle's often features for 99 cents a pop. Sometimes when they're on sale like that I get several and put some in the freezer. Or you can use the more expensive baguettes or ciabatta. Around here it's often a matter of what you can find. Just make sure it's a crusty, slender loaf, not fat and doughy like the "Italian" bread the grocery stores around here sell.
For parties, I make the baguettes into one long sandwich and then cut them into appetizer-size sections. For lunch or dinner servings, cut them into six-inch lengths.
Now, for the meat I used to worry but I learned you can use just about anything simple but boldly flavored. The Vietnamese restaurants usually use roasted pork, but I prefer roasted chicken thighs and you can even sub in slices of those rotisserie chickens you buy in the deli section. Here's how I do mine:
Take chicken thighs, bone-in or fillets (or breasts if that's what you have). Chop up a walnut-sized piece of ginger root and a couple of garlic cloves. Mix in a dab of sesame oil and some soy sauce, plus some chopped peppers or Sriracha sauce if you like it hot. Pour on chicken pieces, roast at 400 degrees until done and pull meat into pieces.
Banh Mi Sandwiches
Baguette(s) as described above
Meat as described above
Pickled vegetables as described above
Fresh cilantro (This is just as essential to the sandwich as the pickles)
Sriracha sauce and/or mayonnaise
Pickled jalapeno slices (optional, if you like it hot)
Slice baguettes in two or make a slit for sandwich fillings. Put Sriracha and/or mayonnaise on bread. (Actually, I use neither. I hate mayo and I have so many different kinds of homemade, homegrown pepper sauces it would be a sin to buy Sriracha, which is a shame since I love it so much I eat it out of the bottle at restaurants. But if unlike me you don't have Mason jars full of red chili sauce, I don't think it would be immoral for you to scurry on down to Ingle's and pick up a bottle of that really great Sriracha with a rooster on the front.)
Then layer on meat, pickled vegetables (use a lot, they're fantastic), jalapenos if you're that kind of person (I am) and above all, the cilantro. Don't chop it up, just slice it off the bigger stems and use it like lettuce on the sandwiches. It sounds like too much but it's the way the restaurants do it and it's so good you'll scream.
Now, eat the crap out of it! Next time we'll try my famous hot and sour soup, but we're out of space here and anyway I'm anxious to get to Ingle's and give that Pad Thai box-o a try. Or should I say, give it a Thai?