There are pieces of my heart in so many places.
In a small apothecary’s shop in Venice, where shelves of dusty bottles rise to the ceiling in every shade of glass imaginable – and some, unimaginable. And tiny glasses of bitterly herbaceous, fragrant Barolo Chinato are clinked by people who don’t speak the same language.
In the hill slopes around Imlil, in the shadow of Morocco’s Mt. Toubkal, where an unexpected trek was undertaken with a large handbag in tow – cue lots of ungainly slithering on rocks, with a brilliant view as pay-off.
And one is firmly held by an 80-something-year-old lady in a tiny shop in Vietnam’s jewel box town and Unesco World Heritage Site, Hoi An.
Her name is Madam Khanh, and she is the Banh Mi Queen. No really – there’s a sign and everything.
Meeting banh mi royalty
A year ago, I was in Danang, Vietnam, to interview Pierre Gagnaire – that chef’s chef, tall, slightly-stooped and ever-smiling, who responded to my starstruck, burbled questions with graceful charm.
But the evening before the interview, there was a food trek.
We were a disparate bunch of journalists from various countries, who shared a love of food and a willingness to walk for it. And we were enthusiastically led by the golden, intrepid PR whiz Raechel Temily.
Extremely knowledgeable and passionate about street food in various Asian countries, Bali-based Raechel had picked some of her favourite street eating experiences in Hoi An, about half an hour from Danang.
On the list were two banh mi outlets, both well-known. The story was: you liked one or the other. Few people could feel equally for both. The second would prove likeable, but for me, eclipsed by the first.
That first was Madam Khanh’s, at 115, Tran Cao Van Street. Not much stood out when our group straggled in; all were in various stages of experiencing the humidity (there was glowing, glistening – and in my case, bucketing – with sweat).
I did notice lots of little papers fluttering though, as we walked in to perch on the low stools peculiar to many streetside eating places in Vietnam (fine for the generally petite locals, quite nerve-wracking for un-petite me. I never knew if I was going to suddenly end up rolling on the sidewalk and have to replace the furniture after a meal.)
Those papers were notes, in various languages. Some so faded that the ink was barely legible, others in bold ballpoint, these were the words of satisfied customers glued all over the walls. Plus, the large sign proclaiming her royal status.
It was the first inkling that maybe I was in for more than just a sandwich.
While “banh mi” is a term Vietnamese use for all types of bread, it also often denotes a particular kind of sandwich.
But the word “sandwich” doesn’t really do justice to the varied, well-rounded cornucopia of tastes and textures that a well-made banh mi can be. It is a nod to Vietnam’s French colonial heritage in its crisp baguette and smooth, liver-rich pate; an homage to the present with lashings of piquant crunchy pickled carrots and daikon, bright coriander, all manner of pork.
Madam Khan’s banh mi took its time. The glorious cornucopia that a banh mi can be is built of many elements, and Madam Khan’s is not fast food, because she is quite insistent that it is her hand that makes the delicate, lacy omelette. That stuffs the delicately smoky roast pork belly into each crisp baguette and adds smears of smooth pate and lashings of chilli sauce.
She does allow her granddaughter to help, though.
When the banh mi did come, it was on a flowered, vermillion-bordered melamine plate.
Those first bites showered shards of baguette crust on multiple laps and sudden silence struck the group. There was thoughtful chewing, then wordless murmurs.
Everyone found something to love – the tender, delicately spiced pork or the fine texture and contrastingly meaty pate, the sour crunch of pickles which lightened and brightened the meaty offering, or the secret recipe chilli sauce so intense that it almost tingled with a pleasant, palate-cleansing bitterness.
It was a revelation, how one sandwich could run the gamut of every taste sensation we could think of and bind it all into one beautiful, harmonious experience. Crunchy, soft, warm, cool, spicy soothing, herbaceous, sweet-sour-salty, deeply savoury – was the whole world in this sandwich?!
The whole world (as it should be), for about US$1 (RM4.15).
And as we chewed slower – to stretch out the experience – we met a young man who made the half-hour trip from Danang on his motorbike every day, just so he could have one of Madam Khanh’s banh mi for breakfast.
It made perfect sense.
Because in the year since I have tasted that banh mi benchmark, it has actually shown up in my dreams.
There are good banh mi beyond Madam Khan’s domain, beyond Hoi An – but she has spoilt me for anything other than her benchmark. A plane ride seems feasible, to mark my banhmiversary.
According to TripAdvisor, Madam Khanh’s store is currently under renovation – look for her temporary location about 10 doors down from 115, Tran Cao Van Street.