Monday, March 17, 2008

Bánh mì - I

A small announcement: I've finally acquired a digital camera. It's a little Canon PowerShot A550, a point-and-shoot with no big-camera pretensions, but with surprisingly good image quality. Some reviews even recommend it as a backup for pro or advanced-amateur work.

Apart from other things, it's also useful for illustrating my posts to this blog. I've always wanted to do so - that is, insert pictures of the food I eat as well as the surroundings it's made and sold in. A fine idea, but I almost forgot about the camera the time I took it to Baguette, a little 'Viet Inspired Deli' in the Raffles Place area.

I have mentioned the place in an earlier post. On that occasion I was with a vegetarian friend. Since Baguette's vegetarian menu borders on the non-existent, we had to proceed elsewhere after a very small snack. But the place had intrigued me immensely, and I resolved to go back there when the opportunity arose.

Opportunities arise in curious ways. The other day I found myself at a loose end in the Raffles Place area, the result of a complicated set of circumstances involving a friend's office, a flight from Kuala Lumpur, and a misplaced library book. At a loose end and fairly miserable - still hadn't been able to trace the damn book! Baguette was situated close by, and seemed a good place to, if not drown my sorrows, then certainly smother them in gluttony.

The place advertises itself as a 'Vietnam-inspired deli'. It restricts its bill-of-fare to popular Vietnamese fast-food. Fried noodles of various sorts, Soda Canh, some desserts, chicken on a stick, and their signature dish, Bánh mì.

Bánh mì is a kind of sandwich, and therefore qualifies as 'fast food'. It's quick to prepare, doesn't involve any cooking as such. But for all that it is deceptively complex. Walter Nicholls of the Washington Post counts it among 'the simplest things (which) often are most satisfying.' I'd say that's as heavily off the mark as you can get. Convenient it may be, simple it is not. Not in origins, certainly not in taste. (Incidentally, the article goes on to call it 'one of the world's great sandwiches', and that I heartily concur with.)

We also find in the same article a brief backgounder to the Bánh mì's origins. When Vietnam was still a colony, its French residents tended to favour sandwiches made of crusty French bread. Wikipedia states these originated in the French 'Salad Sandwich', made of lettuce, tomato, sometimes other vegetables, and dressing served on a baguette.

The French sandwiches purveyed in Vietnam tended to use expensive imported ingredients - butter, pork paté, cornichon, ham and other cold cuts. Much of this was too expensive for the common Vietnamese populace. They began to indigenise the sandwich by using locally-sourced substitute ingredients, a trend that gained impetus after the French left in 1954.

Pickled carrot and Daikon (Mooli to Indians) took the place of cornichon. Local cuts of meat substituted for imported French ham. Even the paté was replaced by an indigenous variant. And most interestingly, they started slathering the bread with a sauce made of egg yolk, cooking oil or butter, and local spices. This they referred to both as 'butter' (in the local parlance) and 'Mayonnaise'; it is not clear which of these condiments the spread was intended to replace. New ingredients were also experimented with, such as seeded chili or Jalapeno peppers, and cilantro (good ol' Dhania to Indians).

South Vietnamese émigrés in the aftermath of the Vietnam War introduced the Bánh mì to the United States. There it gained a quick following, and spread to other parts of the Western world. Even Singapore's introduction to the Bánh mì lies in the West and not neighbouring Vietnam. The owner of the 'Baguette' chain was once a student in Canada, where he encountered this sandwich. He was so taken by it that he decided to start Bánh mì shops in Singapore, and even spent a couple of years researching on it.

Currently the chain comprises only two establishments, one in the Raffles City Shopping Centre near City Hall MRT; and the other, where I went, on Market Street near Raffles Place MRT.

Singapore boasts an impressive array of roads, places, buildings and institutions named after Sir Stamford Raffles - Raffles Avenue, Raffles Boulevard, Raffles City, Raffles Country Club, Raffles Hospital,
Raffles Hotel, Raffles Lighthouse, Raffles Link, Raffles Place, Raffles Quay, Raffles Town Club, Stamford Road, Swissôtel The Stamford, and many more. They are mostly scattered at random across the old European quarter, lying somewhat proximate but not adjacent to one another.

To me, this smacks noisily of George Mikes. His 'How to Be an Alien' (available online here and here) contains a delightful chapter on British town planning. A short extract might might prove relevant:

  • Gather all sorts of streets and squares of the same name in one neighbourhood: Belsize Park, Belsize Street, Belsize Road, Belsize Gardens, Belsize Green, Belsize Circus, Belsize Yard, Belsize Viaduct, Belsize Arcade, Belsize Heath, etc.
  • Place a number of streets of exactly the same name in different districts. If you have about twenty Princes Squares and Warwick Avenues in the town, the muddle - you may claim without immodesty - will be complete.
Singapore's respect for its heritage extends to retaining street and building names that stem from its colonial past. So this Raffles-related chaos is a creation of its erstwhile imperial overlords, coincidentally Britons; the present government has merely left it untouched. Why does this not surprise me?

[Continued in Part II]


ys said...

Good, good! Waiting to see all the described anatomy in pics! Cannot disguise my main passion you see ;)...

Anonymous said...

hey i was perusing through your detailed blogs and have been most impressed by the breadth of your knowledge regarding animals. Lastly, I was wondering how much did you buy that camera for.. My budget is 40 sing dollars.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Sorry anon, can't respond to you personally. You left no clue who you are.

> have been most impressed by the breadth of your knowledge regarding animals.

"Animals" is too crude a word. Let's be civilised about these things and use the generic term "flesh", shall we?

> My budget is 40 sing dollars.

Sure, you go ahead and try down Sim Lim way or somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I thought that we could leave anonymous comments. Please accept my most humble apologies for my tepid mannerisms. Your sense of humour is bewitching, though i don't quite agree with the rather candid description of our fellow harmless species.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Yes you're most welcome to leave anonymous comments.

Your writing style rings a bell somewhere. Have you anything at all to do with Hindustani Classical music (specifically the newsgroup RMIC) and/or, say, graphic design?

Anonymous said...

Hindustani Classical music!! Well, I worked in Bombay with Time Magazine for 2 years,am not sure but I do remember my friends mentioning about Hindustani Classical music.Some Baba Sehgal and Himesh.... top the charts in this classical music.right? Plz correct me if am wrong.Would love to know more about this classical music.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Anon, you're no longer funny. Getting to be tiresome in fact.