I've posted several times about Vietnamese banh mi but realized that I'd never presented a full-fledged, master recipe, nor have I provided some history about the popular Vietnamese snack. First off, a bit about sandwiches themselves. Thank heavens for John Montagu (1718-1792), 4th Earl of Sandwich, who habitually sent for cold meat in between two slices of bread so that he wouldn't have to break away from the gambling tables to eat. Little did he know how he'd impact global eating practices, let alone that of a small country like Vietnam!
There is essentially one sandwich in Vietnamese cooking and it is quite a tour de force. It started out very simply, with baguette smeared with liver pate and that was it. That's how my mom knew it in the 1940s when she was growing up in Northern Vietnam. What we know today as banh mi is a light, crispy small baguette that is split and hollowed before it is invariably filled with homemade mayonnaise or butter (which I don't like), sliced chili pepper, cilantro leaves, cucumber, a tangy-sweet daikon and carrot pickle (do chua), and a drizzle of soy sauce. The variation comes in when you choose what protein component(s) will be center stage. The classic version, banh mi thit nguoi—referred to as the "special" (dac biet) at Vietnamese delis, includes a smearing of housemade liver pâté and thin slices of various Vietnamese cold cuts. Other filling options include, but are not limited to, roasted chicken, grilled pork, crunchy julienned pork skin (bì), Chinese char siu pork, and tofu. This delicious, fanciful version was popularized by Southern Vietnamese, particularly those in Saigon, and is what we know abroad today and in most of Vietnam too.
In the early 1980s, these sandwiches occupied the food craze spotlight in the Vietnamese-American community. A sandwich war of sorts ensued in Little Saigon, California, where entrepreneurial deli owners posted banners advertising low prices ($1 or $1.25) and special offers like "Buy 2 Get 1 Free". Word spread about who had the best deal and best product. There were light-hearted squabbles over which deli should have your loyalty. Our family, like other folks who can't resist a good bargain, bought a dozen sandwiches at a time—veggies on the side so that the bread wouldn't get soggy on the way home. After eating and analyzing a fair number of so-so sandwiches (you eventually get what you pay for), we started making them ourselves—the genesis of this banh mi recipe.
The Bread and Protein
Light crispy baguette (not the chewy rustic kind) is essential for encasing without overshadowing the other ingredients. Vietnamese baguette is commonly made with rice and wheat flour, which makes for an airy crumb. You can purchase the baguette at Vietnamese or Chinese markets, Vietnamese bakeries and delis, or make your own Vietnamese baguette. A Mexican bolillo roll works well too. So does regular baguette, though avoid sourdough and the overly crusty type.
The focal point may be leftover grilled or roasted meat, thin slices of Vietnamese steamed pâté (gio lua), or even seared tofu. Yes, purchased chicken liver pate, even German braunschweiger, can be smeared into a banh mi! Because the daikon and carrot pickle can keep for days in the fridge, you can make banh mi whenever the spirit moves you.
Banh Mi Sandwich
For each sandwich:
1 petit baguette roll or a 7-inch section cut from a regular length baguette, purchased or homemade
Mayonnaise, real (whole egg) or homemade mayonnaise
Maggi Seasoning sauce or soy sauce
Your choice of boldly-flavored meat or tofu, sliced and at room temperature
3 or 4 thin seeded cucumber strips, pickling or English variety preferred
2 or 3 cilantro sprigs, roughly chopped
3 or 4 thin jalapeño pepper slices
Everyday Daikon and Carrot Pickle (do chua)
1. Slit the bread lengthwise, and then use your fingers or a bread knife to hollow out the insides, making a trough in both halves. Discard the insides or save it for another use, such as breadcrumbs. If necessary, crisp up the bread in a toaster oven preheated to 325ºF, and then let it cool for a minute before proceeding.
2. Generously spreading the inside with mayonnaise. Drizzle in some Maggi Seasoning sauce or soy sauce. Start from the bottom portion of bread to layer in the remaining ingredients. (As with all sandwiches, you’ll eventually develop an order for layering the filling so as to maximize the interaction between flavors and textures.) Close the sandwich, cut it in half crosswise for easy eating, and enjoy.
Homemade Vietnamese baguette (banh mi)
Easy mayonnaise (sot mayonnaise)
Daikon and Carrot Pickle (do chua)
Grilled lemongrass pork (thit heo nuong xa)
Meatball banh mi sandwich (banh mi xa xiu)
Quick Char Siu Pork (on Asiandumplingtips.com, my other site)
Roasted Pork Belly sandwich (thit heo quay)
Posts on banh mi innovations
Banh mi incarnations from all over the world
Banh mi craze in New York City
Have any innovative banh mi of your own? Or have questions? Ask here!