When it comes to creating music, it seems to me there are two basic schools. One begins with the melody, considering sound, instrumentation, rhythm, process. Words and story – if there is one – get added to fit the beat and the harmonics and the feel. The other starts with the words: weaving a story, shouting a chorus, infusing rhyme and connotation and syllabic play. Filtering in notes and melodies that fit the narrative.
Guess which one I favor.
I have the same issue with food. Seriously, when it comes to creating a recipe, I should probably start with the fundamentals: ingredients. Taste. Familiarity. Procedure and execution and fitting flavors together.
More often than not, though, the singer-songwriter I’ve never been pops to the forefront and I’m instead thinking of names and paragraphs and ways of representing the food I haven’t even made yet.
That’s what happened with this experiment. In fact, this is in many ways the inspiration for the whole meatball project. Not because I’ve had a dish just like it that needed to be recreated. Not because I’m obsessed with or particularly fond of meatballs. No. Because I thought the name “banh mi-tball” was too good to pass up.
As I noted previously, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity and exactness of such a sandwich. Ratios of meat to vegetable, the types of vegetables, the texture and flour types in the bread, form the bases of entries on numerous discussion forums that range from curious to intensely heated. Names are called. Gluten is flung.
Here’s the thing, though. Now that I’m invested, I just wanted to make a sandwich good enough to be called banh mi-tball. I mean, you can’t back up a heart-wrenching narrative woven in clever rhyme with a tinny little toy guitar and an out-of-tune keyboard. But by the same token, I don’t think you have to be Jimi Hendricks or Eric Clapton to support the story in a satisfying way.
What I’m trying to say here, is that I’m not all that interested in authenticity. I didn’t seek out every banh mi shop in Los Angeles and sample and compare and pester their chefs for trade secrets. Even when I’m not losing my mind grading papers during the semester, I don’t have that kind of time or motivation. The point was, I decided, to strive not for exactness or tradition, but to craft a damn good sandwich. So that’s what I’m going for.
Bread, vegetables (pickled and non), meat, spread. These are the necessary components. There should be a crisp crust, there should be a representation of sourness, spiciness, and umami, there should be a vegetal crunch. For this incarnation, I added strips of fresh Persian cucumbers to my pickles, along with sprigs of cilantro and wedges of lime. I spread my slightly-less-than-crisp “baguettes” with a curiously beautiful coral-hued spread of mayonnaise, sriracha, fish sauce, and lime juice, and I stood back and let my fellow sandwich-diners have their way with the pan full of meatballs on the stove.
Since banh mi sandwiches so often feature pork, a pork meatball was the way to go. It would need to echo some of the flavors found in the sandwich itself, which means this is one of those recipes with a tablespoon of this and a teaspoon of that and an ingredient list long enough that you might at first be put off. You shouldn’t be, though. Like so many good Asian recipes, especially sauces, every single individual component has a part to play, and none are particularly exotic. Ginger and garlic for their aromatic spice. Jalapeños and cilantro for freshness and heat. A few tendrils of pickled onion and a squeeze of lime for sourness. Soy sauce and brown sugar to balance that sourness. Fish sauce and red miso paste for that earthy umami funk. Capitalizing on my previous meatball experiments, a pinch of baking powder for lightness and an egg to bind everything together.
Despite the lengthy ingredient list, the actual production of the meatballs is easy. Remembering my satisfying results with Swedish meatballs, I dumped everything in the food processor and let it whir. Pâté is a frequent protein option for banh mi sandwiches, so the smooth, bouncy texture I knew I could achieve with mechanized mixing seemed to fit the bill. After a mix, a quick roll with moistened hands, and a shallow fry in vegetable and sesame oil, all that remains is a twenty minute simmer in flavorful liquid. I opted for chicken broth with a bit of miso paste and a bit of brown sugar swirled in, which resulted in a poaching liquid so tasty I debated serving small bowls of it on the side.
Once you have all the components, sandwich construction is easy. Because people tend to like crafting their own, this actually makes remarkably good party food. Just lay out your pickles, your vegetables, your bread, set down a jar of spread and a bowl of meatballs and watch your guests go to town. Load up your own baguette with enough fillings to stretch the corners of your mouth as you attempt that first bite. Then hide the leftovers. Because you’re going to want this again, and you might not want to share it.
Makes 22-24 tablespoon-sized meatballs
For the meatballs:
2 cloves garlic, skins removed
2 teaspoons grated ginger
1-2 tablespoons jalapeño slices
¼ cup cilantro
1 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon red miso paste
½ tablespoon soy sauce
½ tablespoon fish sauce
½ tablespoon brown sugar
½ tablespoon lime juice
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped pickled onions
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
For the sauce:
1-2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon red miso paste
1 teaspoon brown sugar
- Add the garlic, ginger, jalapeños, and cilantro to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until almost paste-like. This will ensure easier integration and no large chunks of garlic.
- Add the pork and all other meatball ingredients through the 1 egg (that is, everything except the vegetable and sesame oil), then clamp on the lid and pulse to combine until the vegetable bits are well integrated and the pork itself is smooth and slightly gluey in texture.
- Working with moistened hands to avoid too much stickiness, roll the mixture into tablespoon sized balls. When all are rolled, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil shimmers, then carefully add the meatballs in a single layer.
- Fry over medium heat until browned on all sides; 5-8 minutes. Remove to a clean plate.
- In the skillet, whisk together the chicken broth, the 1 tablespoon of red miso, and the 1 teaspoon of brown sugar, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Carefully place the meatballs into the simmering broth, again in a single layer, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low.
- Simmer meatballs for ten minutes, then flip each one over and simmer for 10 minutes more. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature on a sandwich with pickles, vegetables, and spread (recipe follows).
Sriracha and lime mayonnaise
makes a generous ⅓ cup; enough for about 4 sandwiches
⅓ cup mayonnaise
zest of one lime
1 teaspoon lime juice
½ tablespoon sriracha or to taste
1 teaspoon fish sauce (go easy; it’s strong)
- Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well to combine.
- To assemble the sandwiches, split baguettes lengthwise, spread generously with sriracha and lime mayonnaise, then layer on meatballs, pickled vegetables of your choice, cucumber, sliced jalapeños, cilantro sprigs, and if desired, a squeeze of lime juice.