PETALING JAYA, Nov 16 – Hidden within busy Damansara Uptown is Obanhmi, a place that sets out to change our perceptions about banh mi, the ubiqitious Vietnamese sandwich.
Just opened this September, the small cafe is run by Chris Bui and Daniel Nguyen - both 25-year-olds and best buddies from Hanoi since secondary schooldays.
“In Saigon, we’d eat banh mi every day... it’s so good” says Chris on how they started their venture. Since they were in school, the two had the dream of opening up their own business.
After researching Malaysia and discovering a lack of true blue Vietnamese places here, they decided to start their banh mi venture here.
It is a far cry from what Chris was doing last year as a product manager in a technology start-up, while Daniel was doing corporate work in a bank. “It was a pretty wild turn for me as I jumped completely from IT into F&B but it has been rewarding despite the challenges, ” says Chris.
Both of the boys complement each other. Chris does the research and development, while Daniel handles the management side of the business and their special Vietnamese drip coffee since he is a self-confessed coffee addict.
The sandwich’s origin harks back to Vietnam’s colonial past, when the French first introduced the baguette to Vietnam. “The local bakeries tried to make it but it was too costly to make it as dense,” Chris explains.
The innovative bakers decided to tweak the recipe. “They made it look big but it is airy inside so it tricks the mind.” Unlike the French baguette renowned for its chewy crust and dense interior, its Vietnamese cousin has a thin crackly crust and lighter-than-air crumb.
This spares your jaw on any chewing action, and as Chris explains it allows for a multitude of stuffing.
Chris acknowledges that the key to a great banh mi lies in a perfect baguette. Once they decided to set up this venture, he quit his job a year ago to learn how to bake, a feat he conquered in a span of four months.
He faced obstacles though in finding a baker to teach him how to bake baguettes. “Basically I had to knock on the doors of many local bakeries but
they were not willing to share their recipe. I must have been turned down more than 10 times,” he says.
Eventually, he found a mentor who agreed to take him on as an apprentice. “He listened to my story, dream and vision to bring the baguette out of Vietnam and to the world.”
Work on the bread starts from as early as 5am, as the first batch comes out
at 8am when the place opens. “Unlike the usual 1 hour, we proof it for 2-3 hours for a softer texture.” Just before it goes into the oven, Chris scores it twice with a sharp razor blade.
“Cutting the baguette with the blade allows the air to push the bread through making it bigger.” Chris also sprays the loaves to keep it moist. As each batch of baguettes is brought out hot from the oven, you hear a wonderful crackling sound emitting from the bread, as it cools down.
Throughout the day, Chris bakes up fresh batches of baguettes to meet the demand. Currently, their small oven can only fit 40 baguettes. Like all start-ups they did not anticipate such a good response for their sandwiches and had bought an oven that was too small. In the future, a bigger oven will be needed.
Since the environment in Malaysia differs from Vietnam, Chris had to consult his mentor on the tweaks to the recipe to adjust for the change in temperature and humidity. In fact, Chris reckons this one made from locally sourced wheat flour is far superior than the ones in Vietnam, since it is not mixed with lower quality flour to save costs. He also ranks this baguette favourably against the ones found in Saigon and Hanoi. “We have nailed the bread.”
For Daniel, he enjoys the baguette with a hearty beef stew. Chris prefers the simple way of just dipping it into condensed milk for a sweet taste - a Vietnamese breakfast staple. “It tastes very good and it is very popular with the kids here too.”
Once they got the baguette recipe perfected, the next element for a great banh mi is the filling such as the pork pate and mayonnaise. “When the pate and the mayonnaise goes together it creates a creamy rich taste.”
It took Chris about two months to settle on the final recipe for the pate made from pork meat and liver. “I don’t have a background in F&B and as I am not a cook, it is like an exact science for me with trial and errors to tweak the recipe.”
He researched by going to various banh mi stores, as each one had their own unique pate taste, before he decided on one that he reassures us has none of the unpleasant pork liver smell.
The next element is the mayonnaise, which keeps the sandwich from being too dry. The fluffy creamy mixture of eggs and sunflower oil is made in-house on a daily basis. “We use sunflower oil rather than butter since it is fattening.”
Then comes the all-important carrot and daikon salad, made by pickling in water, vinegar, sugar and a bit of salt. “It is refreshing and crunchy... balances out the meat.” Lastly, there’s the fresh cilantro sprigs --- a must for the sandwich and an integral part of Obanhmi’s logo. “The smell of the cilantro goes very well with the bread.”
Traditionally, the banh mi sold on the street are stuffed with pork ham, jambon or cold meats. As they are unable to import these meats from Vietnam due to the lack of certification, they have replaced it with chicken ham and even lemongrass chicken.
The enterprising boys did try to make the ham themselves but found it was too much work. Unlike the banh mi in Vietnam which has more meat inside, the Obanhmi’s version is on the healthier side with a higher proportion of vegetables. “From customer feedback, we realise that Malaysians perceive Vietnamese food as healthy hence we do not want to mess with that perception.”
The current menu features combinations with egg, pate and lemongrass chicken. The duo also plan to roll out different fillings each month to test the market. One new item is the teriyaki chicken that was recently introduced. Plans also include a vegetarian version, roast pork and even char siew. “We will keep playing with the ingredients.”
As the location of the cafe is hard to reach due to the lack of parking spaces around the Damansara Uptown area, Obanhmi offers a pick-up service.
Call ahead to order your banh mi and it will be prepped ahead for you.
Most of their customers come from the nearby office blocks who walk to the cafe to avoid the parking problem. On weekends, diners come from further afield since more parking spaces are available.
Obanhmi is located at 33, Jalan SS21/56B, Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya. Tel:03-77328540. Open: 8am to 8pm (Monday to Friday), 10am to 9pm (Saturday and Sunday). Closed on Mondays.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on November 15, 2013.