A thing of beauty: banh mi thit from Marrickville Pork Roll. Photo: Adam Enoch
BY ADAM ENOCH
My knowledge of South-East Asian history is comically limited, but without debating the finer points, I’d suggest that one of the best things to occur as a result of the French colonisation of Vietnam was the introduction of French bread and pate, leading to the invention of the banh mi thit or Vietnamese pork roll.
As student-friendly meals go, the Vietnamese pork roll is probably my favourite. They are delicious, fantastic value for money, and filled with crunchy fresh vegetables, they probably contain more food groups and vitamins than your average malnourished student sees in a semester.
Banh mi thit translates literally as “bread with meat”. It began life during the 1940s as a plain crusty roll spread with pate but since then it’s blossomed. It now includes some very sexy vegetables and has gained popularity all over the world as a cheap street food.
The Vietnamese pork roll itself is a thing of beauty: a crusty white baguette spread with pate and mayonnaise, typically filled with pork (tuna and chicken options are often available and the veggie option is pretty satisfying too), loaded with something called do chua (finely sliced pickled carrot and onion) and lengths of crisp cucumber, spring onion and pickled white radish. Fresh coriander and chilli are added before it’s alternately ladled and squirted with sauces and dusted with salt and pepper.
The combination of complex flavours is what makes this such a delicious treat. The cleanness of the vegetables contrast with the richness of the pate and pork, and the whole thing is rounded off with lingering chilli and coriander. It doesn’t sound like a life changing snack but it has to be tasted to be believed.
When ordering a pork roll you will be offered a variety of options. My instinct is to stick with the standard pork roll; it’s a safe choice and there’s very little need to improve it. But if you must experiment, here are the alternatives:
Barbecue pork roll: a good choice. This is actually my preferred roll in winter as the pork is warmed through. A slightly heartier, fuller flavour than the standard issue.
Meatball: also great; it’s warm and nourishing but comes with the caveat of being the messiest of the lot to eat. The meatballs are succulent and moist but can lead to a disastrous loss of structural integrity if not handled with care. Extra tissues are required.
Pork skin roll: best avoided. I had anticipated a delicious combination of pork and some sort of exotic, crispy Vietnamese crackling. I was wrong. The reality is that neither pork nor crackling are involved in its creation. If you’re familiar with the disappointment of crackling gone wrong, the chewy, partially translucent matter that is impervious to any dental assault – well, this roll contains a sort of finely-sliced approximation.
Chicken: not bad, but perhaps a little insipid. It seems to lack the body and character of the pork roll. But the real problem is that chicken rolls are often 50 cents more expensive than their standard pork counterparts and as that’s just another reason to stick with the common variety.
Tuna: I can’t judge a tuna roll impartially – the chilli was omitted when I last tried one, which frankly, is just not on. You may have a better experience but I can’t bring myself to order another.
There are a couple of other points to remember. I recommend accepting the plastic bag that is usually offered, it keeps everything neat and tidy, and especially in the case of a meatball roll will save you the ignominy of excess sauce dribbling down your front. If you are the environmentally-conscious type and decline the plastic bag, you will have to exercise great care when devouring your sandwich. Perhaps use a plate and eating whilst sitting down. Almost all vendors offer tissues or napkins at the counter. Grab a handful of these little white lifesavers as the final mouthfuls of any pork roll can be a delicate operation, and you will likely need something to aid the inevitable clean up.
I’m proud to say that my local, the tiny but incredibly popular Marrickville Pork Roll came out on top; however, if you’re in the area and in a hurry, I’d also happily recommend Marrickville Kingsies, a small bakery just a little further down Illawarra Road. Their pork rolls are very nearly as delicious, and the owners Lucas and Srei Mon are always lovely. But the thing that really works in their favour is that you rarely have to contend with a queue of 30 people frequently seen at Marrickville Pork Roll.
Good luck in the search for the perfect Vietnamese pork roll. And happy chomping.
The nitty gritty:
Banh mi thit, $4
Marrickville Pork Roll
236a Illawarra Rd, Marrickville