A lot of Vietnamese dishes are inspired by French cuisine, because Vietnam was a longtime colony of the French empire. Bánh mì sandwich is an example of a dish that reflects the fusion of both cuisines. The sandwich consists of cilantro, fresh chiles, pickled carrots and usually a meat filling (grilled chicken, bì which is shredded meat with roasted rice powder) or sometimes a vegetarian filling, served on a baguette, spread with mayonnaise on one side and butter on the other.
For the veggie option, I normally fill the sandwiches with bì chay (shredded tofu with roasted rice powder). But this time, Aunt Danielle stopped by and we made mắm chay. She knows it's my husband Lulu's favorite, so she makes it very often. As I've said before, Aunt Danielle is a sweetheart and an amazing cook, except that she does not share her recipes. She used to run a successful restaurant in the early 90s. She taught me a lot of Vietnamese staple dishes to cook for the family until she found out about PhamFatale.com through her friends. I had to confess and she was not happy. It's funny; family and friends are a lot more reluctant to share their tips and secrets with me, so I have to do a little bit of recon and intelligence gathering.
In the end, Aunt Danielle hasn't entirely showed me how to make mắm chay. We prepped and mixed the ingredients together but she hid a few tricks from me. All I can tell you is that there are a lot of ingredients similar to bì chay involved, such as fried tofu, bean thread noodles, dry roasted rice powder (thinh) and seasonings (fried garlic, sugar and salt). What makes it different from bì chay is the addition of galangal (a type of ginger), young pickling cucumber, chayote squash (trái su su), ripe papaya, fresh pineapple and dried daikon radish cured in brine.
Even though the sandwich is reminiscent of the typical French jambon-beurre (ham and butter sandwich), bánh mì provides a taste of Vietnam. Lulu's been addicted ever since I first introduced him to the Vietnamese version, and if you try one, you will be too! Full Recipe...