Lemme just preface everything by saying I don’t really do Asian food.
Don’t get me wrong. I love eating it. I crave it in ways that stalk my belly like insatiable beasts demanding ramen or gyoza or cha gio or General Tso’s or any number of other things at 1 or 2 in the morning (usually after a beer or two). I search continuously around my neighborhood for gross-good greasy spoon Chinese take-out. I eat the same whitebread version of spicy noodles nearly every day at Whole Foods for lunch. So I like it. A lot. I just don’t really ever make the stuff myself. Even in relatively Asian-challenged South Austin, the options out there are better than what I can put out of my own kitchen.
But this isn’t for lack of familiarity. I actually do have some history with Asian food. My first job at the tender age of 14, was at a place called New China in Boise. Calling it authentic or decent or even non-toxic would be a stretch, but I was happy to have a paycheck. And New China was happy to have cheap labor, they clearly didn’t give a shit that I was 14. Or that my coworkers were 14. Or that everybody smoked in the kitchen—especially the really old Chinese guys parting out chickens while dangling 555 Internationals from their lips until the ash collapsed under it’s own weight, falling directly into the chicken parts/ ashtray below. Or that we drank beer in the alley behind the kitchen (and sometimes in the kitchen during working hours). Or that there was a fairly pronounced roach problem that we used as entertainment while taking breaks from smoking, drinking in the alley or actually (and very occasionally) washing the dishes. Looking back, it’s pretty clear that New China didn’t give a shit about much of anything except keeping the fleshy, tubbish white regulars moving through the buffet line.
All that aside, New China was my very first foray into an entertaining if somewhat misspent youth in restaurant kitchens. I started as a dishwasher and chicken soup strainer, eventually working my way up to manning the round Mongolian Grill thing when the old Chinese guys were busy taking smoke breaks in the kitchen. But my time at New China wasn’t as much an education the rich cultures of the Far East as it was a crash course in the vaguely underground and anti-social world of kitchen life that I still love and miss all these years later.
So yes, I have some history, but what fucking business do I have screwing with food that I like but really don’t understand all that well? It turns out that the Bahn Mi Burger is what business I have, thank you very much. It’s not authentic. It’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be a take on a burger that borrows from the tasty little sandwiches that I love but don’t always have occasion to ferret out. The burger combines a few key things: the patty is a pork and shrimp mixture, the veg is butter lettuce, cucumbers, cilantro and Do Chua (those tasty bright carrot and daikon pickles, I added jalepenos to mine because I felt like it), the condiment is duck liver pate and a homemade Sriracha mayo. The end result is something that tastes distinctly Asian and very much American all at once. It’s a great switcheroo on a backyard classic, which is about as close to fusion as I’ll ever get. And it’s damn, damn tasty.
As a burger it takes a good bit of pre-planning, especially of you pickle the do chua yourself. Which I did. In addition to time, making do chua also takes a good bit of olfactory fortitude, especially if you don’t like the smell of boiled pig ass—which is about as accurately as I can describe the smell of opening a container pickled daikon. I mean my wife literally changed my kid’s diaper when I cracked open the stuff in the other room. It’s that big of a stink. BUT other than the time and smell challenges, the whole thing comes together pretty easily. And damn if it’s not worth it—char flavored delicious patty, bright crisp cucumbers and pickled veg all set off by the fatty unctuousness of duck liver and Sriracha heat. It’s even better if you can score some crusty, pillowy bread to bring it all together.
Bahn Mi Burgers
3/4lb smallish shrimp (40/50 per lb), cleaned and deveined
3/4lb ground pork
thinly sliced cucumber
quality French bread or burger buns
Sriracha mayo (recipe below)
quick duck livers (recipe below)
do chua (recipe below)
Light a charcoal grill. Place the shrimp and about half the cilantro in a food processor and pulse several times until they are finely chopped, but still fairly chunky. Mix the shrimp with the pork, adding in several grinds of black pepper and a few hits of fish sauce. The patties will be extremely soft and sticky because of the shrimp. Place the mixture in the fridge and grease a plate with some of the bacon fat. Get your hands wet with cold water and form patties out of the chilled mixture, placing them on the greased plate and returning them to the fridge. Clean and thoroughly oil your grill grate with some of the bacon fat. Spread a little more fat on the sides of each patty and grill over medium heat, not turning or messing with the patties for several minutes per side. Toast your bread on the grill and assemble the burgers like so: bottom bun, duck livers, cucumber slices, butter lettuce, meat, do chua, cilantro leaves, siricacha mayo, bun. You can add extra sriracha if you need a little extra heat.
This is a recipe I kind of winged after consulting various on-line resources.
1lb carrots, julienned
1lb daikon, julienned
3 jalapenos, sliced thin
3 tbsp salt
4 tbsp sugar
½ cup rice vinegar
Combine the salt, sugar, vinegar and water in a bowl, stir to dissolve everything. Add the carrots, daikon, and peppers. If the liquid doesn’t cover all of them, add a little more water. Refrigerate for one week, get ready for the smeller coaster when you open them.
Quick Duck Livers
1 lb duck livers, cleaned of sinew
5 tbsp butter
½ cup brandy
½ cup cream
Salt and pepper
Rinse the duck livers and drain thoroughly. Dry the livers on paper towels and season aggressively with salt and pepper. Heat half the butter in a hot pan. Add the livers just before it begins to brown. Let them sear thoroughly on both sides. Flame the pan with the brandy and cook it off. Add the cream and reduce till most of the liquid is gone. Transfer to a food processor and blend until mostly smooth, adding in the remaining butter and a little extra cream if necessary. Check for seasoning, cool and refrigerate until needed.
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp rice vinegar
splash of water
solid pinch salt
1 cup vegetable oil
Sriracha to taste
Whir the egg yolk with the water, vinegar and salt in a food processor. Add a little sriracha. With the processor going, slowly add the oil in a thin stream until well emulsified. Taste and add more sriracha until desired heat level is achieved.