This idea came from Twitter user @ArtVandelay91, to whom I am now greatly indebted.
Before I get into it, I want to at least acknowledge something. No more than 300 people will likely see this blog post, so I can’t imagine I’m at any great risk of landing on the radar of the Internet Shame Police, but there is a whole conversation going on right now about the cultural appropriation of food.
I don’t want to get into much of it, as much of it just isn’t my place to get into. But I will say that the concept of “authenticity” in food is often tenuous and almost always overrated. Food is food. Nearly all of the best foods stem from some sort of intercultural exchange — the banh mi from a particularly despicable one — and while I recognize that people can and should feel pride and passion for the foods of their cultures and the specifics of how they’re prepared, I don’t think it’s reasonable at all to argue that no one has the right to alter or incorporate or build upon those foods. Dishes evolve. It’s all fusion.
That is to say: I was not trying to make an “authentic” banh mi here. I was trying to make a burger that incorporated delicious elements from that sandwich. And I obviously didn’t make it now because this topic is in the news. I made it because I had cilantro left over from the broccoli falafel and ground pork in the freezer from Crowd Cow (where you and I can both get $25 worth of meat if you order with my referral code).
The sandwich: Banh mi burger.
The construction: A seasoned pork patty on a pretzel roll with pickled carrots and cucumbers, jalapenos, fresh cilantro, mayo and sriracha.
For the pork burgers, I pretty much followed the exact recipe the New York Times recently published for Vietnamese meatballs, except I used slightly more ginger and garlic, and it took me way longer than 20 minutes. Every recipe underestimates prep time by about half. It takes 20 minutes just for me to peel and mince two tablespoons’ worth of ginger.
Instead of shaping the pound of pork into 12 meatballs and baking them, I shaped it into five burger patties and cooked them on a cast-iron skillet. This turned out serendipitous, as I’ll explain in a minute.
Most of the banh mi-focused quick-pickling recipes I found online called for rice vinegar, but I didn’t have any. I shredded the carrots with a vegetable peeler, sliced the cucumber as thin as I could, and quick-pickled them in a mix of white vinegar and sugar, with a pinch of salt. I didn’t have any daikon radish. It’s a pandemic.
Important background information: One of the five best sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life was a pork meatball banh mi I got from a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City in 2013. It cost the equivalent of 67 cents USD, it came wrapped in graph paper. and I have spent the last seven years alternately trying to find a banh mi anywhere close to as good and plotting my return to Vietnam.
That’s why @ArtVandelay91’s idea spoke to me, I think: The best banh mi I’d ever had was built on meatballs — not cold cuts — so a banh mi burger made a lot of sense. I can’t remember the original sandwich well enough to estimate if its meatballs tasted anything like the ones in the Times’ recipe (I sort of doubt it), and for all I know using ginger-seasoned meatballs in a banh mi is a major faux pas. But I went with it, and I’m glad I did.
What it looks like:
How it tastes: Spectacular. Completely f-ing spectacular. I have made myself a lot of sandwiches in my lifetime, and this might honestly be the best of them.
The main thing to understand is that the Times‘ Vietnamese pork meatballs make for sensational burgers when grilled on a cast-iron skillet. I don’t know the science behind why this happened — I figure it’s either the fat in the pork or the cracker crumbs mixed into the meat — but a crunchy crust formed on the outside of the patties, almost as if they’d been fried. So the patty itself provided a variety of textures and flavors, with the spicy, assertive taste of ginger standing out from the crispy, meaty, peppery, garlicky mix.
Complemented by the rest of the banh mi stuff here, it’s unbelievable. The jalapenos offer a second, more familiar source of sandwich spiciness to accompany the ginger, and it’s all balanced by the sweetness and tang of the pickled vegetables. The cilantro makes it sharp and the mayo makes it creamy, and the sriracha adds some color for the photograph.
All together, it’s an incredible, harmonious confluence of tastes and textures and temperatures, one that features flavors familiar from banh mi but isn’t exactly like any banh mi I’ve ever had before. It’s so good. Make this sandwich.
The pretzel rolls we keep getting from FreshDirect are again the unsung hero (pun vaguely intended). I don’t want to talk them up too much, and I fear the inevitable day they go the way of yeast and Nutella and hot dogs and stop being available to me.
Hall of Fame? Yes, quite.