Thursday, July 24, 2014

Banh Mi - Mini Chicken Vietnamese Rolls

What aspect makes or breaks a banh mi?

Well I always thought that it was the fillings, I’d base it on how good it was or how much there was – the standard mayonnaise, red skinned roasted pork, pate, pickled carrots, cucumber, spring onion and coriander. This was the banh mi that I had grown up eating in Perth. But after my trip to Vietnam in 2011 and eating a lot of amazing banh mi, especially in Hoi An, I’ve came to the conclusion that it’s all about the bread. After all, banh mi just means bread. A particular kind of bread, like a baguette, but unlike the French baguette which is renowned for its chewy crust and dense interior. A Vietnamese baguette has a thinner crust that is crisp and crackly, and it’s cottony soft, light and airy on the inside due to a combination of wheat and rice flour. The baguettes in Vietnam are A+ and when the bread is good, you don’t need to put a lot into them. 

Earlier this year Robyn Eckhardt, food writer of Eating Asia tweeted this –

Exactly...who needs more?

The other thing that I found out about banh mi in Vietnam was that the fillings were different to the ones that I had in Perth – there was no standard, I’ll just have my usual pork roll thanks. 

In Vietnam, you are most likely to buy banh mi from a cart on the side of a road, they will have a basket of fresh baguettes and their own mixture of fillings on the shelves ready to go. When I had my first banh mi at a corner street stall Banh Mi Pho Co in Hoi An, this was when my understanding of banh mi completely changed. It was different from any banh mi that I have had in Perth. The banh mi contained slices of cucumber, water spinach leaves, chunks of melt in the mouth pork belly and not the thinly sliced pork that I was used to, and there was also some homemade chilli sauce and a lot of little bits of fat in a light crusty baguette. There were no herbs, pickles, liver pate or mayonnaise. It was delicious, the best banh mi that I had ever eaten. Why hadn’t I experienced this kind of banh mi before? 

Banh Mi in Hoi An

Whilst I used to think that banh mi had to adhere to certain criteria, I’ve come to realise that banh mi can contain virtually anything, but it should have a good balance of flavours and textures to give you that mouthful of synergy which makes it so rewarding to eat. It should also enlighten you with a bang of Vietnamese flavours because that combination of salty, sweet and sour really hits the spot. And the bread, the bread has to be right.

Growing up my family always bought banh mi to eat at home, we never made it as there were so cheap to buy – it was our version of fast food.

Everyone I know loves banh mi and I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t. Whenever I need to bring food to share, I like to make some mini chicken banh mi which are quick and easy to prepare.

For the bread I buy those mini dinner rolls from the supermarket that look like tiny baguettes and require 5 minutes of heating in the oven before consuming. I have a soft spot for these rolls because they look cute - this is why sliders are popular right? people like mini things. It also means you can eat more of them! I have to cook them in the oven so I feel like I’ve put some more effort in too. They are not the right kind of baguette as they are much denser and chewier than the Vietnamese kind but they do the trick, well at least they look the part.

For the filling I pan-fry chicken which has been marinated overnight in fish sauce, sugar, garlic and ginger – this is a common marinade for Vietnamese meat and can be adjusted to your desired taste.

To provide that Vietnamese touch of sweet and sour hit, tang and freshness – kewpie mayonnaise, pickled carrot, spring onion and coriander are also added.

When I plan on making mini chicken banh mi, I pickle the carrot days before and marinate the chicken overnight. Then it’s just a matter of pan-frying the chicken and slicing it, baking the mini rolls in the oven for 5 minutes, prepping some spring onion and coriander, and each roll can be stuffed in no time at all.

Mini Chicken Banh Mi

(An original recipe by the Blue Apocalypse)
Vietnamese Pan Fried Chicken

  • 500g chicken thigh
  • 3 ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 7 garlic cloves, crushed/minced
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, grated
  • pinch of salt and white pepper

Slice the chicken thighs into 4-5 cm pieces to allow more marinade to penetrate.

Mix the sugar, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, salt and white pepper together in a bowl. Add in chicken pieces and mix thoroughly so that the chicken is coated with the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight for best result.

Pan fry or grill the pieces of chicken until cooked and browned. The sugar in the marinade will result in some caramelisation around the edges! Slice into pieces.

Pickled Carrots

  • 2 medium sized carrots, grated
  • ¾ cup rice vinegar
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Heat the rice vinegar, sugar and salt together in a saucepan, and stir to dissolve the sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Put the carrot in a jar and pour in the pickling liquid, leave to pickle overnight. 

Pickled carrots can be stored in a covered jar and refrigerated for 2-3 weeks. When using, take the carrots out of the pickling liquid.

Banh Mi Construction
Step 1: Bake mini bread rolls and slice in half in the middle (but not all the way through!)

Step 2: Squirt in kewpie mayonnaise and use knife to spread on the base.

Step 3: Add in sliced Vietnamese pan fried chicken

Step 4: Top chicken with pickled carrot, sliced spring onion and chopped coriander.

Step 5: Eat!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The God of Ramen - Taishoken

I had put together a list of places I wanted to eat at in Japan even though I knew that I wouldn’t get around to eating at most of them. 
I knew that I couldn’t have my heart set on places as they would be difficult to find (the Japanese address system makes no sense to me!) and I would be surrounded by so much amazing food that it would be silly to spend too much time looking for “a” place and bypass everything else as if it they were irrelevant. 

In Japan it’s so easy to eat well, even at convenience stores, and you can practically live off eating from Department store basement food halls. 

But there was one particular dish in Japan that I wanted to eat a lot of.


There are so many ramen places in Japan it’s ridiculous, so much so, that there are whole blogs dedicated to ramen with never ending entries. Imagine a dish so populous that you could spend every day of the year eating it and there would always be a new place to try. 

So I had a list of ramen places with the hope that I would get to a few of them. But if I could only choose one, it would be Taishoken. 

I watched the documentary The God of Ramen last year and even though everyone raves about Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I loved The God of Ramen so much more. The God of Ramen traces the life of Kazuo Yamagishi and his struggles. Yamagishi was the inventor of tsukemen aka dipping ramen, where the noodles and broth are served separately and you dip cold noodles into hot broth. It’s a style of ramen that has become increasingly popular in Japan. Thus, Yamagishi is considered the God of Ramen. It’s a raw and unpolished piece of film, cheaply shot and does not have any of the slick production of food porn that Jiro Dreams of Sushi has, but the story is so much more compelling and heartfelt. You gain much respect for Yamagishi’s work ethic and his treatment of apprentices, but you also see the hardship, sacrifices and loneliness which I guess is part and parcel of being a chef sometimes, but you rarely see that side displayed in such human terms. I shed a tear when I first watched it, perhaps many.

Eating at Kazuo Yamagishi's Taishoken would really complete the story for me. 

So how much did I want to Taishoken? Well I decided to tackle it on my first day, after a red-eye flight (14 hours flight time, plus 7 hours in transit in Melbourne), no sleep, arriving in Tokyo midday, I felt that the best way to start adventures in Japan would be to eat ramen immediately and specifically Taishoken. My accommodation was in Ikebukuro and Taishoken was located somewhere nearby at Higashi Ikebukuro, so I thought that I would have no trouble finding it with this map that I had printed from Google Maps prior to my trip. 

But after 2 hours of wondering around, I couldn’t find it and gave up. It was a good lesson to learn on my first day in Japan, I’m not someone that gives up on things easily but sometimes you just have to let go. There were so many other ramen places around, I knew that I could eat at any one of them and have a very good meal. Towards the end of my hunt I did walk into a bank with the intention of maybe asking for directions... but when I walked in everyone looked busy and I felt a bit stupid for taking up their time to ask for directions to “a” ramen place. Especially when I didn’t speak any Japanese and one thing that will always surprise me is how little of the Japanese population speak English. It was my first day in Japan and I guess I was still trying to acclimatise as an ignorant foreigner, I wasn’t ready for an awkward broken English exchange yet. So I left. I knew that I shouldn’t feel stupid and I knew that if I had asked, they would have been more than willing to help but then I was questioning myself - “why?”, why did it even matter anymore? Maybe I was feeling a little bit defeated, but there was also the thought going through my head of how I didn’t want to be someone who travels just to eat at “the” places, maybe instead of going to the ramen place that everyone talks about, I could eat at a cool ramen place that no one talks about because who needs the God of Ramen
I ended up having lunch at Namco Namja Town, located in the Sunshine City shopping complex. An indoor food amusement park with a gyoza (Japanese dumplings) food court and I ate all the dumplings! Take that!


On my first day in Japan I was blessed with lovely fine weather but then at night it started raining and I had to buy an umbrella. Walking around the streets at night, I was extremely tired from a long flight and no sleep yet but before I hit my futon and call it a night, I needed to eat something. At this stage I wasn’t fussed. I was happy to eat anything as I would have plenty of opportunities for great food on the rest of my trip and right now it was just about getting some dinner before bed...something nice, warm and filling.

I was wondering around through the rain, not really knowing where I was or what food was available in the area and across the street I spied a place that was lit up and looked kind of cosy so I decided to check it out.

As I crossed the road and got nearer I saw through the window that all the chefs were wearing towels around their head like Kazuo Yamagishi (the God of Ramen). When I stepped inside, I saw photos of Yamagishi on the walls and I realised that I had stumbled onto Taishoken when I had spent most of my afternoon trying to find it. The biggest smile cracked across my face, as my head shook in disbelief. Like WTF?!

Funny how things turn out huh? When you are trying to find something, you can never find it, but when you least expect to find it, it appears!

So the moral of the story is that there really is a God of Ramen and that night he saved me from a cold raining night, tired, hungry and a bit deflated with the best bowl of hot ramen. It was just want I needed. 

My first tsukemen ramen. The experience of dipping cold noodles into hot broth was a lot more enjoyable than I thought it would be, you want the burning heat of the broth but you don’t want to burn your tongue so the cold noodles temper this and it works well together. The broth is fatty, where you are licking an oil slick off your lips after every mouthful. The flavour of the broth was amazing – porky but with lots of depth to the flavour – you can taste some sweetness, some saltiness and savoury notes, it’s well-balanced so that it doesn’t feel like it’s just pork even though it is just pork you can taste. Remnants of many ingredients speckle the broth, so you can see that a lot has been put into the broth, slowing simmering for hours to make it taste so good.

...but this story could have been different. 

I decided to not have internet on my mobile while I was in Japan. Initially I just couldn’t be bothered and figured I could easily sort it out once I was in Japan. I always had free wifi back in my hostel/hotel/ryokan and global roaming for emergencies, and in the end it was all I really needed. I didn’t need to be connected 24/7 and I decided not too because I’m on holidays!

And because after a while I really enjoyed just wondering around and trying to find places using a map. Instead of looking down at my phone the whole time trying to follow a blue dot, I looked at the roads ahead and studied them, I looked up at the buildings and signs around me. I used my gut feelings and intuition - anything that would give me a sense of direction. I started to notice the shape of streets – thick or narrow and the way they curved. I would count the number of 7-11’s I passed as a way of getting to my next destination. Because I was holding a map in my hand most of the time, I had people come up to me and ask if I needed help and would direct me to places. I was taking in all my surrounds and trying to remember little bits and pieces of places to get me through. And there was always that big feeling of satisfaction when I did find the place that I was after because I really did find it! Even though my hit rate was less than 50%, I was in Japan so it didn’t matter where I ended up. There was never a loss.

I could have found Taishoken within 5 minutes when I first arrived in Tokyo by just following Google Maps on my mobile if I was connected, and then I would be telling you how amazing technology is and how much it makes travelling so much easier as you can find any place you want in an instant. How I couldn’t live without my phone etc. etc. 

....but no, I was just travelling...