Saturday, April 05, 2008

Bánh mì - II

[Continued from Part I]

Baguette, or at least its Market Street outlet, is not much to look at. Its interiors, typical of small delis in Singapore's business district, seem designed with functional more than aesthetic considerations in mind. White plastic and stainless steel predominate, lending a faintly aseptic air.

As against this, I was mighty impressed with the service. Granted, it was late afternoon, I was the only customer present, and in all likelihood the staff-members were bored out of their collective skulls, but it still felt good. They were courteous throughout, especially the manager Andi (male, despite the 'i' at the end of the name). He was quite forthcoming about the shop and its origins, and humoured my strangest requests with aplomb.

Strange requests I made plenty. The regulation pork Bánh mì sells for $5.50, and you can have an extra slice of ham or helping of paté for a Dollar extra. So I asked for one of them regulation things, a Soda Canh (pronounced Soda Chanh), and a serving of paté on the side. Just wanted to check out what it tasted like. It took me a few seconds to get my request understood. But once it got through, Andi cheerfully scooped out a serving into a little sauce container.

After the meal, I requested an extra slice of ham, once again a cappella. There were three different kinds of ham on display - Asian, Marbled, and Vietnamese Red. I asked for a slice of Marbled. This time, a thoroughly amused Andi took out a slice of Marbled and one of Vietnamese Red, and explained the second was on the house.

The only time he didn't humour me was when I remembered the camera started taking pictures of the shop's interiors. He explained with a smile that company policy discouraged photography, so as not to reveal secrets to rivals. (Luckily I had taken one shot by then, and for some reason he didn't ask me to delete it.) I found this rather puzzling. So far it seems there's only one other Bánh mì shop in Singapore, and even they do it in a different style (I shall, of course follow up on this as soon as I can).

In any case, what will a rival learn from a mere photograph? As we shall see, the secret to a good Bánh mì lies not in its constituents but in the way it is put together. Moreover, most ingredients are widely known and easily googlable. Special ones are either proprietary formulations (like the paté) or difficult to source (the cold cuts), so reveal nothing about themselves to the observer or photographer. And for good measure, they all lie in full view of the customer, directly beneath the glass counter-top.

This arrangement involves several slots of varying length cut into a large stainless-steel shelf. Trays containing different ingredients sit on these slots. Somewhat reminiscent of a Subway outlet, except that all the stuff in view goes into about two or three varieties of sandwich. You don't need to waste any time over options here.

In the centre of this arrangement are the three largest trays, in which are kept the cold cuts mentioned earlier. They are flanked by tubs of paté and mayonnaise. To the rear are smaller compartments containing the garnishes - red chilli, pickle, and this green leafy thing Andi insisted on calling parsley even though it looked, smelled and tasted exactly like cilantro.

Bánh mì's deceptive simplicity finds reflection in the way it is put together. First, a small crusty French loaf about a foot long is fished out from the inner recesses of the shop. It is slit lengthwise almost right through, into which is smeared thick layers of paté and mayonnaise. Then they take a slice of each variety of cold cut, and fold them into the slit. Finally, it is stuffed with finishing touches like pickled carrot and Daikon (mooli), red chilli and cilantro.

Though this may not seem so big a deal, it actually calls for a high degree of skill. The ingredients are all strongly flavoured, and in very disparate ways. Only if they are added together in just the right proportion does the resultant appeal to the palate. Now and then they miss the mark. The Travelling Hungryboy sums up his experience in Baguette on the lines of 'close but no cigar'; apparently his sandwich was so thickly layered with mayonnaise that it masked the flavour of the other ingredients.

I was luckier. Don't wish to sound cynical, but when I had gone there they were almost out of mayonnaise, and had to keep scraping the bottom of the tub with a spoon when putting together my sandwich. Whatever be the reason, the sandwich I got was beautifully balanced in flavour.

In musical and culinary contexts alike, the adjective 'contrapuntal' bears well-defined meanings and demands similar exactitude in usage. I have often seen it applied weakly, even casually, in food articles. Perhaps this calls for a minor exegesis.

Musically, counterpoint involves two (or more) distinct melodies harmonically related to each other. Its aesthetic values depend on the fulfilment of three criteria. First, the individual melodies must be aesthetically pleasing in their own right. Second, they must be capable of coexisting as a polyphonic whole. In formal terms, this requires individual notes to be separated only by specific melodic intervals, such as the perfect fourth or fifth, or the major or minor third. Practically it means just that when they are placed together, they must not clash or yield a dissonant cacophony.

Third, it is also expected that the melodic lines must be dissimilar to one another. Replicating a single melody across two related keys is easy. But then the purpose of the exercise is lost. Its beauty lies in juxtaposing disparate, contrasting entities into a pleasing whole distinct from its constituents.

Similar considerations if not formal rules apply to food as well. Related flavours cannot comprise a counterpoint; only contrasting ones may. The Bánh mì at Baguette constituted an exemplary exercise in this regard.

The sweet-sour pickle contrasted with the meaty ham and paté. A buttery moist aftertaste was added by the mayonnaise (together with the paté); this also balanced the crustiness of the loaf. The resultant sweet-sour-umami was pierced through by the red chilli's piquancy. And finally, the considerable quantities of cilantro used made it an ingredient in its own right, and not just a garnish. Its distinctive fresh fragrance constituted an effective finishing touch.

This was all the more impressive because to be frank, the main ingredients were nothing so great individually. The ham slices I sampled were lean, but not as flavourful as the better hams I've tried. The paté was greasy and uh, not so high on flavour either. The exception was the bread - light, crusty and yet not too dry.

Even the Soda Canh was both offbeat and pretty good to drink. It was mainly made of soda, lime juice, sugar syrup and crushed ice garnished with a slice of lime - commonplace ingredients all. However, the addition of a sour plum added to it an interesting new twist . . . uh, imbued it with a 'contrapuntal' tartness. (And that's another thing - if the ingredients reflect unequal prominence, it is the secondary that provides the counterpoint to the primary, never the other way round.)