It had been over fifteen years since I’d talked to my cousin Solange. Our last conversation was basic, full of minimal niceties exchanged at her wedding which included ballroom dancers, videographers, and tables weighed down by Chinese food and bottles of 7-Up and Martell (prime Viet wedding beverages to be mixed into an unusual tea of sorts). Last Sunday’s event was rather somber, her father’s giỗ — an annual memorial gathering to commemorate a family member’s death. Her dad was my father’s older brother and my parents asked us to attend with them to show our respects.
Among the first things out of Solange’s mouth was praise for my cookbooks. She said that Into the Vietnamese Kitchen had made her a god cook. (Her mom, whom I wrote about here, was a doctor and researcher, not a domestic goddess.) I was flattered and said that Solange should try the banh mi book because it’s easy and fun; she and her husband have two teenage daughters.
“Banh mi is hard. You wrote a book on how to make it?”she said with a tone of incredulity. Solange is a doctor and her husband is a neurologist. I assured her that making banh mi is not as difficult as what they deal with in their lives.
But Solange’s response was not uncommon. Last month a renowned pastry chef, chocolate expert and cookbook author told me that she didn’t think she could make a good banh mi sandwich. Seriously? She explained that there seemed to be so many vagaries in the sandwich.
Given those two recent conversations, I thought I’d take some time out to dispel common banh mi myths and misunderstandings.
It’s all about the bread. This is untrue. The bread just needs to be light and crisp. Supermarket French-style bread will do. A well-made bolillo roll works too. No, you don’t need rice flour in the bread to make it Vietnamese.
What won’t work are rustic rolls that will scrape the roof of your mouth. Banh mi is often filled with textures from all the pickles, cucumber and herbs – along with the protein. If the bread aims to do more than delicately frame the insides, it fights with the filling. The bread matters but don’t stress on it. Don’t let someone tell you that if you don’t have the right bread, you cannot make good banh mi. Here are detailed banh mi bread buying tips.
The pate is hard to make. That was my cousin Solange’s first argument against making banh mi at home. My mom made pate in Vietnam. She let me work the hand cranked meat grinder. Here in the States, she switched to a food processor. I do too. If you have Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, there’s a fabulous pate recipe in the “Charcuterie” chapter that requires baking and aging. That’s the pate I grew up with.
In The Banh Mi Handbook, there are simplified, small batch recipes for Viet-style liver pate, which I make with shallot, garlic, five-spice, cognac and butter. Somewhat similar seasonings are applied to a vegetarian pate made with edamame (young, green soybeans).If you just have pate and pickle, you can make canapes, which I’ve been serving to guests as nibbles with drinks; the recipe for banh mi crostini has details on the toast rounds.
There are just one or two kinds of banh mi. Look at the menu at a banh mi shop. It’s varied. Someone on Facebook told me that banh mi is basically the grilled pork version (banh mi thit nuong). Sorry, that’s incorrect. Neither is it the dac biet special with a mix of cold cuts and pate.
Banh mi does not have to have all the pickles, cucumber, and cilantro. That’s a Saigon-style banh mi. Viet people can make banh mi with a little liver pate and salt and pepper – a banh mi pa-te (add some European butter for oomph). There are also new banh mi, such as the doner kebab banh mi. I made banh mi hot dogs this summer.
Viet food is constantly evolving. What’s key is keeping true to its foundation and roots. In the realm of banh mi, this is what you want to focus on: Using a moderate amount of protein, light bread, some heat (black pepper or fresh chile), fat (mayo or butter), salt or Maggi, and maybe vegetables (tangy crunch pickles, refreshing cucumber, pungent herbs). It’s about balance. When banh mi is a meat-centric affair, it throws all the other elements off kilter.
What makes the mayonnaise yellow? Food coloring. Someone asked me this long ago and I was totally perplexed (mayo doesn’t naturally turn yellow from the emulsion of eggs and oil and acid), until I went to a Lee’s Sandwich shop and looked at their tubs of house-made mayonnaise. It contained food coloring to mimic the yellowness of egg yolks. Mayonnaise is easy to make and Viet banh mi vendors had to excel at making it from scratch (I'm not sure when Hellman’s arrived but they are smart to endorse the above banh mi cart).
As a result, the fresh mayonnaise lends a delightful richness to many banh mi sandwiches; it’s part of the signature flavor of many Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. Here’s a basic mayo recipe but maybe you'll graduate to flavored ones in the book?
Use a spatula and slather it on generously all the way to the rim because there’s not much fat in the remaining sandwich. Mayo will do its job without a touch of yellow food coloring. If you don’t like mayonnaise, use lightly salted butter like one of these.
There’s a lot going in a banh mi sandwich, and it can seem perplexing — even if were born in Vietnam like my cousin or a food expert like my pastry chef friend. I’ve spent a lot of time eating, dissecting, and constructing them to tell you that if you can make a sandwich, you can make banh mi. And, I’m here to enable you. Banh appetit.
Along with the recipes in The Banh Mi Handbook, here are more recipes to prepare: