Sardine Banh Mi Salad
Banh Mi is one of my favorite foods. For those of you that don't know, banh mi are French-style Vietnamese sandwiches that have grilled meat, sweet pickled radish and carrots, jalapeno, cilantro, pate, and mayonnaise on a big crusty baguette. If I had to pick favorite parts, it would be the daikon and carrot pickles followed by the pate, but really the sandwich is all about the combination of flavors. If you don't get any jalapeno on your banh mi, then you don't know what banh mi is supposed to taste like. My least favorite part of banh mi is the bread. The traditional baguette is very crusty, so it creates a lot of crumbs.
When I was growing up in Fort Worth, there were a few places in Dallas where we would always stock up on banh mi while visiting my grandparents. One was Bale, a French-style Vietnamese bakery that is known for their banh mi. They used to have a special where you could get 6 sandwiches for $2, and my brother and I would eat all 6 in one day. Another place was a pho restaurant (I don't think I ever knew the name) that didn't have banh mi on the menu. You had to order it for takeout (while you were eating in at their restaurant) and they'd hand it to you in a black plastic bag. The whole affair felt very naughty and exciting. The banh mi here was $6 per sandwich, but it was so good. One of my uncles was friendly with the owner, so he was able to order the sandwiches for takeout without actually eating in the restaurant! This was a big deal. If you met this uncle, you would completely understand though. He was a competitive soccer player in Laos, but still looks like a competitive soccer player. He is someone you just want to feed, and you don't even have to feel bad about it because he can't get fat.
So recently, I was diagnosed with PCOS, and I have mildly elevated cholesterol. I have always suspected that I have PCOS, but waited several years before actually having someone confirm my suspicion. And in my defense, the whole month before I got my blood levels drawn, I was on my internal medicine sub-internship. For some reason, I am unable to eat as healthily as usual while on internal medicine. I end up eating cheap takeout every day, either given to me by my team or purchased on my way home. This is one of the reasons I did not apply to internal medicine. While the oligarche of PCOS doesn't really bother me, the increased susceptibility to diabetes and wonky cholesterol do. This means that I have to be more selective about what I eat and more disciplined about daily exercise.
One of the dietary changes I have been trying to make is to incorporate more fatty fish into my meals. Salmon is easy. You just add some salt and pepper and slap that slab on a skillet. Like a good steak, a salmon fillet does not take skill to cook. All you have to do is not ruin it. Sardines are another fatty fish that are cheaper and more environmentally friendly to catch since they live in rivers. I've tried cooking sardines in the past using different French styles. The taste was a little too strong for me. Then I remembered that banh mi can also be made with sardines, and I hoped the tomatoes and spice would balance the strong sardine flavor. I also wanted to convert the meal into a cabbage salad because cabbage is cheap, sturdy, and can be left in the fridge for days. In this recipe, I pickled the cabbage with carrots in the same style as the traditional daikon and carrot. This creates a tasty salad that can be packed several days in advance, which makes easy weekday lunches.
Sardine Banh Mi Salad
Adapted from Viet World Kitchen, makes enough for 5 packed lunches
1 small head cabbage
1/2 cup sugar1 cup hot water
1 1/4 cups white vinegar
1-2 tablespoons oil
1 large onion or 2-3 large shallots, sliced
3 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 jalapeno, diced with as much ribs removed as you want
1 15-oz can sardines in tomato sauce
oyster sauce and sugar to taste
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
2 cucumbers, sliced and quartered (you can peel if you like)
1. Shred the cabbage and carrots. A food processor makes life so much easier here.
2. Dissolve the 1/2 cup sugar in the hot water and combine with the white vinegar. Place the shredded cabbage and carrots in this brine in a large bowl, cover, and let sit in the fridge for 4-6 hours. Do not let this sit overnight, as the cabbage will get too limp.
3. Heat the oil over medium heat in a sauce pan. Saute the onion in the olive oil until it becomes translucent and golden. Add the diced tomatoes and jalapeno and saute until the tomatoes fall apart. You can add a tablespoon or so of oyster sauce at this point. If you taste it now, it will be too spicy. Don't worry. The fish will tone down the spice. If the sauce is too salty from the oyster sauce, add some sugar. Add the whole can of sardines, and mash and combine them with the sauce using a wooden spoon. Taste and adjust oyster sauce/sugar ratio. Lower heat, cover, and allow to simmer for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to combine. Shut off heat, let cool, and mix in chopped cilantro.
4. After 4-6 hours, drain the cabbage and carrot mixture. You don't need to spin it completely dry or anything, just dump it in a colander. Divide the mixture evenly amongst 5-6 plates/containers. There will be about 1.5-2 cups of cabbage mixture per serving.
5. Divide the cucumber slices evenly amongst the cabbage servings, and divide the sardine mixture evenly amongst the servings. When you actually eat the salad, the sauce from the sardines and the brine on the cabbage combine to make a pretty good dressing.