It was in Paris where I first got exposed to various cuisines. Before I moved there, my tastebuds were familiar only with Filipino, Chinese and French cooking.
Later on, I realized that the food standards my mom showed us was “up there” after comparing it to those that I tried in the City of Light.
We lived on the Left Bank around the Latin Quarter. Here, you will find Vietnamese restaurants. Vietnam was a colony of France and Paris had a lot of Vietnamese residents. Since our resto was not open for lunch, we often ate at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant called “Paillettes D’Or.”
The owner was a good friend of my older brother Bong. I remember being served delicious mami and Pate Imperial which was crispy lumpia with sotanghon filling then wrapped in lettuce and dipped in a sweet patis sauce. (I drew inspiration from this dish when I came up with one of my lumpia appetizers in our new resto, Wooden Spoon).
There were spareribs, chicken dishes, veggies and delicious fried rice items. I fell in love with the cuisine. I don’t remember ever trying the popular pho or noodle dish.
When I went to study in New York, I would visit my second home, Paris, every chance I got. In one of my vacations, I drove to the Vietnamese area which was somewhere in the fifth district and noticed a small shop with three Vietnamese ladies busy making sandwiches. The queue was so long, the ladies never got a break.
One was slicing bread and wiping mayo, then she would pass it to the next lady who would put in the filling, while the other would wrap and collect the cash.
None of these ladies spoke French, which I have always felt makes the cuisine they represent more interesting and authentic. The long line, to me, represented very good food. Soon, I was also in line waiting for my turn to try this new surprise. I love food surprises.
Up close, I learned this is what the Vietnamese call banh mi. It is a Vietnamese sandwich. It is made with about an eight-inch bread which is very similar to the French baguette. Inside, they wipe homemade mayo and liver pate. Then they put in slices of lean ham (cha lua), pigs’ head paste (gio thu), and an embutido-like meat they call salted shredded meat (cha bong).
They then add julienned strips of pickled carrots and radish, cucumber, wansoy stalks and, if you want it spicy, which I do, they put sliced jalapeños. Finally, they sprinkle a special sauce which I suspect is Maggi Savor liquid seasoning. They close the sandwich and toast it a bit.
The result is a crunchy, burst- in-your-mouth delicious, name-forgetting combination of flavors that will make you hum in satisfaction. I dream about this sandwich.
When I moved to Vancouver, I would drive to a grocery that sells an authentic version of the sandwich. I would have it at least once a week.
Sometime in the ’90s, someone attempted to make a version of it. It was far from what I remembered it to be. Also, in a recent visit to Puerto Princesa where I was told many Vietnamese reside, there was also a poor attempt to duplicate the ones I had tried. I ended up frustrated.
But on Fields Avenue in Clark, a tiny place makes an authentic version. Its fresh lumpia was also a winner. I just couldn’t remember the name.
But when a fellow foodie, Maricris Encarnacion, told me that there is a place in Makati that sells it, I was so excited. This is the closest to how I remember it to be. They have three versions—the traditional one, the shredded chicken and beef bola-bola version. Sarap!
On weekends, the place makes fresh Vietnamese lumpia, too. That I have not tried, but definitely will. Owner Anne, who is Vietnamese, says she will someday make pho or noodle soup. I love the authentic version of this.
I have always felt that Metro Manila lacks an authentic representation of this type of cuisine. Whoever comes up with one, I feel, will be a great success.
From Paris to Manila, I hope banh mi will become a common sight on our streets. Check them out!
Bon Banhmi is at 8390 Mayapis Street, San Antonio Village, Makati City. Call 8087979.
Watch out for the second season of “Foodprints” on Sunday, 8:30 p.m., on Lifestyle Network.
Visit the the author’s blog at sandydaza.blogspot.com; follow on Twitter @sandydaza.