We’re excited to present this recipe which combines infamous delicacies from Vietnamese and French cuisine. We’re huge fans of a Burgundy cheese called Époisses, a cheese so potent it’s supposedly (apocryphally?) banned from public transportation. The first time we had it, we immediately thought “Oh, this smells like mắm (salty fermented fish/seafood)!” In our take on the north-central dish bánh đập, we finally had a chance to combine Époisses with mắm to astonishingly harmonious effects. In the process, we had crystallized for us a concept we’ve always been aware of regarding food, but never seen so vivid a demonstration thereof.
Bánh đập is a traditional appetizer from the Central regions of Vietnam. It consists of a crispy, airy layer of tapioca cracklings (bánh đa) and a doughy, slightly greasy layer of steamed rice sheet (bánh cuốn). This slice of contrasting textures is dipped in a fermented anchovy sauce called mắm cái – basically the brine from a jar of pickled/fermented whole anchovies.
Époisses is a traditional cheese from the Burgundy region in France. It is a soft cheese whose outer rinds are regularly washed with brandy to cultivate and evenly distribute the bacteria that causes that famous scent. While not as popular a French export as Brie, Camembert, or Roquefort, Époisses is considered by many to be the king of French cheeses.
One little known way to serve Époisses in its native region is as a particular tasty open-faced grilled cheese sandwich:
The above method of serving Époisses inspired our bánh đập iteration. Tapioca cracklings were grilled to puffiness then topped with Époisses and grilled some more. The melted Époisses replaced the chewy richness of bánh cuốn, and then some. The crackling and Époisses slices were then dipped into a bowl of improvised mắm cái (diluted mắm tôm.) The flavor of mắm and Époisses combined beautifully, with salty mắm dominating the initial sensations and rich, creamy Époisses lingering on the palate afterwards.
We’ve mentioned many times that people tend to overestimate the difficulty with which acquired tastes from their own particular cultures can be acquired. “Stinky” fermented food however, generally live up to their infamy – French colonial literature is full of references to the odiousness of Vietnamese mắm while Vietnamese lore is full of bemusement over the French dedication to their repugnant phô mai (cheeses, Vietnamese transliteration of fromage). Our families are sometimes dogmatic mắm eater (i.e. certain dishes are impossible without mắm), yet we’ve always had trouble convincing them of the appeal of cheeses, even those milder than Époisses.
How one culture can be so in love with its own pungent specialties and intolerant of similarly smelly dishes from elsewhere was explored in a Foreign Times article “Kicking Up a Stink – On Eating Cheeses in China” by Fuschia Dunlop. In a region of China renowned for its stinky fermented vegetables, the author found that a common objection to stinky cheeses was the lingering and rich after taste.
For our bánh đập, this difference in temporal distribution was key to how mắm and Époisses worked together. We’ve been previously aware of tastes and flavors evolving as a function of time. The success of combining mắm with stinky cheese showed us how such a phenomenon can be used to our advantage in combining potent ingredients.
For future experiments with bánh đập and melted Époisses, we aim to make our own flavors of cracklings. We would also like to make an immigrant chic mắm cái substitute. We’ve mentioned previously how mắm nêm can be simulated from pineapple and canned anchovies. A similar substitution can probably be made for mắm cái, if only pineapple weren’t immediately suggestive of mắm nêm. Perhaps we can utilize kiwi, a different fruit that is high in proteases but milder than pineapple, to dissolve canned anchovies into a rich sauce to be paired with our bánh đập. (Thanks to our chemistry consultant Heidi for the suggestion of kiwi and other proteolytic fruits!)
This post is our contribution to the November 2011 edition of Delicious Vietnam, hosted and compiled this month by Sandy from ginger and scotch. Delicious Vietnam was started by Anh of A Food Lover’s Journey and Hong & Kim from Ravenous Couple.