Thursday, June 23, 2011
Vietnam: The Land Of Sandwiches
I used to know a lot about horse racing, but never quite enough to make any money at it. I studied the form, and threw bricks into the dewy turf to test the going each morning, and unwrapped blankets around steaming Lancashire hotpots in the back of my beaten-up old Land Rover in the hope of luring tips from passing insiders. At one point, I even found myself driving to King’s Cross some evenings to buy the next day’s racing papers.
It was quite sad really.
Like I say, I never really got anywhere with racing. But the one thing I did learn is that what you eat at the races says a lot about the food of the country you’re in. I’m not talking about private dining tables and Royal enclosures; I’m talking about the soul food, the comfort food, the snacks of choice - the stuff eaten in the cheaper silver-ring and grandstand enclosures, where 90% of punters go.
You say Kentucky Derby to race-goers and they’ll have the taste of American mustard and fried onions in their mouths, Melbourne Cup and it’ll be the meaty gravy of that ‘proper Aussie pie’ they keep droning on about in ever-ascending sentences, Fairyhouse and it will no doubt be the fatty, breadcrumby taste of disturbingly pink sausages, and Royal Ascot, and it’ll be the tang of smoked salmon, moistening away nicely at the back of the throat with the heavily-buttered brown bread.
But given the overwhelming evidence at Saigon Race Track – one of the very few places in the country that the Vietnamese can legally gamble - the snack of choice here is the sandwich. Alright, there were a couple of stands selling noodles – you can’t go anywhere in this place without falling over a fucking noodle stand – but it’s definitely the sandwich.
Or the banh mi, or bread roll, as it’s known here. A stumpy baguette filled with anything from tinned mackerel in tomato sauce to Laughing Cow cheese to eggs to a few cold cuts and a smear of dubious pate (don’t ask), and always with salad, herbs, sauces, pickles, and a generous scattering of chopped red chillies, that is easily now the most popular form of Vietnamese fast food, overthrowing the traditional pho noodle soup.
I apologise in advance, if I appear obsessive about sandwiches. I wrote an unpublished book on the weighty subject in my hopeful, naive 20s, and have always been fascinated by their history, and the cheerful, parcel-like comfort they offer.
Sandwiches were obviously made well before a hungry John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, ordered an idle butler to stick some meat between two slices, and to hurry up about it, because he didn’t want to waste valuable gambling time leaving the card table. Barbarians were no doubt chucking slabs of rhino between unleavened, fire-baked bread thousands of years before that.
I mean it’s hard to accept that man had invented the printing press before the complexities of the filled bap. But if you do go with it, and say it was Lord Sandwich who invented what we now regard as the sandwich in its modern form, then it makes an interesting journey from his stamping ground in Kent to Saigon Race Track 6,357 miles away in Ho Chi Minh City.
The British statesman made them fashionable, there were rosbif ripples in France, and then finally an uncomfortable acceptance of this entirely new food form that no-one had ever seen or heard of before (obviously with the word ‘le’ wedged before ‘sandwich’ in a typically Franco attempt to save pride, rather than a shoulder-shrugging, philosophical favor that it was just another nail in the coffin of the French language).
Parisians started filling baguettes with pates, and jambon and butter, perhaps with a few cornichons on the side for sharpness and colour, then came brie and squished tomatoes with lots of pepper and sea salt, and then as happened in Britain’s former colonies, France started exporting sandwiches through its empire like rats from ships.
The French took their flour over to Saigon and showed their Vietnamese servants how to make baguettes, and then finally – almost 120 years after the death of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich - the banh mi was borne. And it’s amazing to think that no-one would have ever invented it, if it hadn’t been for a British aristocrat, whose epitaph should have read "seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little", according to his many critics.
Yes, they embraced the sandwich in Vietnam. And some might say Lord Sandwich has got a lot to answer for, because it shows in the diet. The Vietnamese tend to be much more rotund than their Cambodian and Thai neighbours. Men happily flop their guts out, and lounge around, scratching their balls, counting down the hours till their wives get home from work and they’ve got more money for sandwiches.
And every restaurant menu has its own comprehensive sandwich section, sat awkwardly in a no-man’s land between Western dishes and Vietnamese dishes, like some sort of oil-rich archipelago in the South China Sea, or Eastern Sea if you live in Vietnam, being fought over by two mutually-respecting, but diametrically-opposed culinary rivals.
I even saw a ‘Chef Sandwich’ for sale in one place, and I can only wonder at the uniqueness of the person’s mind that came up with those fillings, let alone the name. Ham, grilled chicken, camembert, black olives, mayonnaise, lettuce, onion, and tomato. Even at $5 - two day’s pay for many people out here - I had to order one, and was soon mopping milky liquid from the melted camembert with a handy baguette.
When I asked, they said it was created by an English chef who’d left the country a few years ago. I don’t know if he was from Kent. But it would be nicely fitting to say he was...and that he’d set up a banh mi stall in Margate or something.
But they don’t deal with outlandish pomp like that at Saigon Race Track, they serve sandwiches the traditional way - a smear of pate, like home-made chicken liver pate but without the fuss, rolled pork belly slices, white sausage, and other things they produce from somewhere in the cart. And then comes the salad - onion, lettuce, tomato and long strips of leathery cucumber, chopped red chillies, mayonnaise and ketchup, and who knows what else crammed in, pushed together, and wrapped in computer print-out paper fastened with elastic bands as though it’s been handed over by a hopper in The Wire.
Or maybe a breakfast banh mi? Two eggs beaten in a bowl, with a little water - the key to any decent omelette. Not that they’re making an omelette as such, as there’s no gooeyness. Instead, they pour a little vegetable oil into a wok and fry the eggs until they have the texture and colour of a shammy leather.
It could be a very ordinary dish, but they add a scattering of sliced onions to the oil before they put the eggs in, and this gives it that sort of big-race, hotdog smell, except without the testacles and colouring, and you’re back at that race course, anywhere in the world, screaming along with the crowd as the horses hit the 1,100 metres pole and the hotdog or the burger or the taco or the kebab or the naan or the SANDWICH is falling out of your hands, and the mustard is already down your shirt, and it’s neck and neck, and your horse finally comes in and the whole afternoon’s saved, and you know you’ve got the money to buy another 10 hotdogs. Or 189 banh mi if you’re in Vietnam.