Weekend Recipe: Catfish Banh Mi!

I’m a huge fan of Banh Mi, the amazing sandwich that came from the fusion of Vietnamese and French food during the 20th century. Banh Mi is, basically, a sandwich made on a Vietnamese baguette (which is like a french baguette, except that it’s got some rice flour mixed with the wheat, giving it a crisper texture), topped with a spicy mayo (or some other sauce), some kind of protein, pickled vegetables, and cilantro.

I only learned about these glorious things recently. When I started working out foursquare last september, our office was in the East Village in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks away from a terrific banh mi restaurant, called Baoguette. Baoguette was one of our standard lunch joints. It’s a tacky little run-down hole-in-the-wall place – which is exactly the kind of place you want for what is, basically, street food.

In January, we moved to a new office space down in Soho. It’s a great space – I love our new office. But I miss my banh mi. So since the big move, I’ve been trying to figure out how to replicate my favorite sandwich. And today, I finally did it: I made a home-made catfish banh mi that is, I think, good enough to call an unqualified success. And I’m going to share how I did it with you!

The first thing you need is really good bread. In an ideal world, you want a baguette from a Vietnamese bakery. But since those are hard to find, go french. A really good french baguette is the closest thing – it’s got the right basic texture: a crisp but not crunchy crust.

Next, the veggies. You need to make these at least a couple of hours ahead, ideally at least a day.

You take a daikon radish (also called a chinese turnip), and julienne it, into strips about 1/4 inch by 1/8th of an inch by 3 inches or so. Do the same thing to a couple of carrots. Sprinkle with about a tablespoon of salt. (Don’t worry; it’s not going to turn out super-salty – we’re trying to extract water from the turnip.) Set it aside for about 1/2 an hour, and then drain off the liquid that will have accumulated.

Now, mix together about 1/2 cup of rice vinegar, and about 3/8ths of a cup of sugar. When you’ve got the sugar nicely dissolved, dump this over your veggies, and add cold water until the veggies are just covered. Add in a couple of fronds of cilantro, and a sliced chili pepper, and put the whole shebang into the fridge. Give it a stir once in a while. It’ll be ready to eat in about 4 hours, and it’ll be perfect in a day. After that, drain off the liquid, and put it into a tightly covered container to keep for about a week.

Now, finally, we’re up to the catfish. You really do want catfish for this. Catfish has a great, most, tender texture, and a strong enough flavor to stand up to what we’re going to do to it. Take a good size catfish filet, and cut it in half down the rib line, and then in half again perpendicular to the ridge line. Depending on how big your bread is, you’ll want between 2 and 4 of these catfish strips per sandwich.

Finely mince a clove of garlic, and a couple of slices of fresh ginger. Crush them up with just a bit of salt, to get them really pureed. Then mix them with about one teaspoon each of fish sauce and soy sauce, and about 1/4 teaspoon of korean chili pepper or cayenne (or more, if you like to spicier. I actually did more like 1/2 a teaspoon, but that’s a lot!). Toss the fish into this mixture, to get it nice and coated, and let it marinade for about 10 minutes.

Now, you want to prepare your bread. Then cut a section of the bread about 8 inches long, and then slice it open about 2/3rds of the way, and rip out some of the interior to make room for fillings!

Now, sauce: The sauce is simple: half and half mayo and sriracha. Whip some of that up. Give your bread a good layer of the sriracha mayo all around. On top of that, lay a sprig of fresh cilantro. (In the past, I’ve tried using a homemade aioli, but this is one of the rare cases where the premade is actually just as good.)

Now you’re almost ready to cook the fish. Mix together equal parts of general purpose flour and cornstarch, and give the fish a light coat. Heat up a frying pan on medium heat, and add just enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. (We’re frying here, but not deep-frying!). When the oil is hot, put in the fish, and cook it for about 1 1/2 minutes on each side. You want it to be just barely cooked through.

Put some fish inside the bread, then add a generous helping of the pickled vegetables, and top it all of with more sriracha. And then prepare to eat one of the best sandwiches you’ve ever tasted!

(I’d show you a picture, but we totally devoured these. There’s nothing left to photograph.)

10 thoughts on “Weekend Recipe: Catfish Banh Mi!

  1. Christina Pikas

    hungry and it’s only 9:15! Sounds awesome. I pickled some carrots to put on a Vietnamese spring roll I made, but this version seems better. I’m going to have to try it.

  2. Jim Thomerson

    Locally there are two catfish available at the supermarket. Farm raised US channel catfish, and Vietnamese or Thai farm raised Pangasius or basa catfish fillets. Basa fillets are drier, finer textured, thinner and more uniform than channel catfish fillets. Both are fine for regular fish sandwiches. For authenticity you want basa, but channel cat might be even tastier.

  3. anthrosciguy

    For authenticity you want basa, but channel cat might be even tastier.

    Mississippi State University did a series of blind taste tests starting in 2002, which I’ll bet everyone thought was going to show channel cat being preferred, and their results were that basa was preferred 3 to 1.

    Back when I was a kid, the catfish we got at restaurants in Arkansas was wild, but farmed stuff just isn’t the the same. The Mississippi tests also showed that farmed basa was just as nutritious (but a little less fatty) as the farmed channel cat and just as safe. Go for the basa.

    1. MarkCC Post author

      I used basa. I get all of my fish from a local Korean grocery store, and they only sell farm-raised vietnamese catfish.

      Basa is a really, really lovely fish. I’m sure that it’s very different from wild catfish – fish flavor varies with the fishes’ diet, and farm-raised catfish are eating *very* differently than wild. But my main concern is just whether it tastes *good* or not – and farm-raised catfish tastes terrific.

  4. anthrosciguy

    Part of my point is that when you get American channel catfish nowadays you simply don’t get wild catfish. Pretty much like you’re not going to get wild trout unless you fish for it (and even then it’s hatchery-raised and not so wild as before — alot of trout get caught before they have much chance “get wild”). So even if there ever was any real improved taste with channel cat over basa (which I don’t know but kinda doubt) those days are long gone.

    Basa, after all, is a variety of catfish as well, native to SE Asia, and was probably better back when it was wild-raised and wild-caught. But farmed basa is quite good, and often really cheap. Definitely one of the fish varieties on our menu, and available most everywhere now.

  5. Pingback: A Summer Bánh Mì Buffest (Buffet+Fest)! « The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

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