After my sister-in-law’s mother came to Japan for a visit, she left us a giant jar of homemade Vietnamese pickles. The mass of shredded daikon radish and carrots rested in their sweetly sour brine in the refrigerator, waiting to be piled on top of everything. I dreamt of banh mi.
I fell in love with banh mi around the same time my sister fell in love with her Vietnamese-American wife. While it would be nice to say otherwise, it was more coincidence than fate; I met my future sister-in-law for the first time at a Tower Records store in Tokyo, and she was not dressed in an ao dai offering me my first life-changing banh mi. By then I’d already fallen hard for the combination of cilantro, cucumbers sliced thin, and perfectly seasoned pickles mounded on top of a protein of choice, all nestled into a crunchy baguette that wasn’t quite a baguette. Sandwiches no longer had to be pieces of bread bookending mounds of meat covered in cheese, the types of faux meals only to be ordered once in a while when you had the time to feel ill later. I believed, and still do, that you could reasonably, and financially, eat banh mi every day. And as if to validate my theory, I commuted to the Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli whenever I was in New York.
If I’m honest, though, those pickles are one reason I so love banh mi. I always order the chicken – no jalepenos – because the “special banh mi” with its smear of fatty pate tends to dull the vinegary crunch of those delicious, julienned root vegetables. When I learned late last week that the Vietnam festival would be held that weekend, I immediately thought of those pickles, that crunchy yet fluffy bread, and cilantro.
Every summer, Yoyogi Park hosts a few cultural festivals centered on a particular country – in this case, Vietnam. There are allegedly some shows featuring traditional attire and dances, but “cultural festival” is essentially code in Japanese for a food festival with some bank remittance stalls thrown in. My sister-in-law had just left to visit family in the U.S. and do all of our American shopping a few days prior, so my sister and I were left to judge the food stalls together. I wasn’t too worried. With taste buds honed by New York banh mi, we were confident in our ability to find the best at the Vietnam festival.
We started with a reasonable strategy: check out all of the food vendors before settling on one. Most of the food stalls were hosted by restaurants around Tokyo and featured large plastic signs that boasted giant pictures of pho, banh xeo, and che. With hunger and the heat taking their toll, we settled on a vendor specializing in banh mi, with one of the longer lines extending before it. We inched towards the front, waiting around 20 minutes before being handed our packets of banh mi, disappointingly plucked off a pile of pre-assembled, pre-bagged sandwiches.
The robust sandwich I’d imagined and expected, fat with pickles and garnished with a sprig or two of cilantro, was crush flat as I pulled out something that resembled a quesadilla. There was a generous smear of pate and two slices of the usual mystery meat that usually lurks within the sandwich when you order the special banh mi. A cucumber slice had a brief cameo, along with a few carrots that had escaped the pull of gravity while the sandwich had been propped up on its end. Worst of all, the pickles were cut like fat crinkle cut fries, and most of them lay at the bottom of the bag, within sight but out of reach.
“Oh, oh no,” I said. My sister let out a disappointed wail that quickly turned into laughter as she pulled her banh mi out of its bag and viewed it in its full glory.
I could hear my sister-in-law laughing from across the ocean, then, and blaming our seemingly genetic naïveté, our sheltered upbringing that was certainly the cause of such a blind purchase – a whopping 500 yen! – of a pathetic attempt at authentic Vietnamese food. I don’t blame her – I take it as a personal affront when friends go to sushi places that feature dragon-shaped rolls with tempura sticking out of the ends and/or anything that involves cream cheese – but that didn’t prevent me from praying that she knew, somehow, that finishing that “banh mi” was sufficient punishment.
We cleansed our palettes and respective memories with coconut and lime gelato for my sister and a slushy, icy coconut drink with tapioca pearls on the bottom for me. Sugar did its work and we went home sweaty and covered in sand kicked up by the wind, but laughing at our banh mi disaster.
As Biggie once said, “if you don’t know, now you know,” and with some knowledge gained and money lost, now I do. Until next year, Vietnam festival. I’ll be back for my banh mi revenge.