What’s your favorite easy hand-held meal? If you’ve lived in the Bay Area for more than a week, it’s probably the burrito. But increasingly, right behind it is the Vietnamese sandwich known as banh mi. Once found only in Vietnamese immigrant neighborhoods, the banh mi–which adapted French colonial ingredients to Southeast Asian tastes–has rapidly become a Bay Area staple. Vietnamese-owned delis like Saigon Sandwiches in the Tenderloin sell them; so do chic cafes like Bun Mee in Pacific Heights and the Castro. And now, local Asian-food expert and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, who was airlifted out of Saigon with her family in 1975, has come out with The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches, an informative, mouth-watering guide to making banh mi at home.
Nguyen is the author of several other cookbooks, including Asian Dumplings, Asian Tofu, and Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. Her writing style is brisk and lively, and she does an excellent job in explaining unfamiliar ingredients and laying out techniques step by step. An accomplished home cook with professional training, Nguyen’s recipes are clear and detailed, without restaurant-chef jargon, and she has a friendly way of anticipating–and problem-solving–typical pitfalls for novice cooks. The book, cute and stylish, would make a great off-to-college or first-apartment gift, especially for someone who already loves these flavors and, sadly, might be relocating to a wilderness where these pickle-adorned, headcheese-stuffed baguettes are not standard-issue sandwich-shop fare. Served with rice or noodles, many of the recipes for grilled and braised meats could make for easy dinners at home, while the big-flavor spreads could muscle out the typical mayo n’ mustard on any number of Western-style sandwiches.
In a short but informative first chapter, Nguyen explains the French colonial influence in Vietnam that led to the sandwich’s creation, as well as the post-war diaspora of refugees fleeing Communist rule that spread the sandwich across the world. The French colonials brought baguettes to Vietnam, where they were known first as banh Tay (Western or French bread), then as banh mi (wheat bread). Writes Nguyen,
“My father’s eighty-something-year-old friends recall that around the early 1940s, Saigon vendors started offering banh mi thi nguoi, an East-meets-West combination of cold cuts stuffed inside baguette with canned French butter or fresh mayonnaise, pickles, cucumber, cilantro, and chile. Reunification of North and South Vietnam via the communist takeover in 1975 resulted in a mass exodus of refugees, many of whom settled in North America, France, and Australia. Those who came from Saigon brought fond memories of Saigon-style sandwiches and yearned to savor them once more, and banh mi shops, bakeries, and delis sprung up in response.”
Although the sandwich was born as a hybrid between French ingredients and Vietnamese tastes, Nguyen knows that a squirt of Sriracha and a handful of cilantro does not a banh mi make, and wisely, she resists the temptation to push her recipes into overloaded-hoagie territory. Although Nguyen’s subtitle is “Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches,” she keeps the emphasis on delicious rather than crazy. You won’t find a sandwich stuffed with mac and cheese here. Nguyen’s recipes are creative and contemporary, and definitely more adventurous than what you’ll find at your typical Vietnamese corner deli, but they don’t stray into anything-goes territory. Instead, you’ll find fillings like Hanoi Grilled Chicken, Sri Lankan Black Curry Chicken, Shrimp in Caramel Sauce, Chinese Barbecued Pork, Panko-Crusted Tilapia, and Garlic Pepper Pork Tenderloin. There are also eight vegetarian fillings, from Edamame Pate to Lemongrass Sriracha Tempeh and Thai Fried Omelet.
The book offers an in-depth, crash course in banh mi history, ingredients, and how-tos. There’s a brief but helpful two-page guide to the “banh mi pantry,” stocked with items ranging from fish sauce, soy sauce, and Swiss Maggi Seasoning to white vinegar (for pickling), Chinese five-spice powder, and mayonnaise. The following “Master Banh Mi” recipe lays out the typical components and amounts of the classic sandwich: vegetables (cucumbers, cilantro, fresh chiles, pickled daikon and carrots); filling; bread; mayonnaise or butter; and an umami-rich seasoning, such as Maggi Seasoning or soy sauce. This master recipe explains the simple steps, from lightly toasting the bread to layering the fillings, that go into making a delicious banh mi.
Then, each chapter explains a different element of the process. “Bread” gives recipes for making your own French-style sandwich rolls at home, but also gives helpful suggestions on sourcing ready-made options. “Mayonnaise, Sauces, and Pickles” starts with homemade mayonnaise, then gives a handful of variations ranging from Cilantro Maggi Mayonnaise to Srirachi Aioli. Her easy vinegar-brine pickles–Citrusy Red Cabbage Pickle, Green Tomato and Lemongrass, Red Radish and Carrot–could liven up any summer picnic. “Cold Cuts” gives straightforward DIY options for making the East-meets-West sausages, terrines, and pates typically found in Vietnamese sandwich shops. Next come succulent, meaty chapters filled with inventive fillings, including chicken, pork, beef, seafood, tofu, and more.
At her book launch party at Omnivore Books on Monday, Nguyen came up with a great party idea. Platters of grilled and braised meat, bowls of pickles, dishes of cilantro sprigs and slivered cucumbers, and jars of flavored mayonnaises with paired with baskets of thin-sliced baguette toasts. Guests piled their plates high and made their own open-face banh mi crostini. Savory cocktails were spiked with fish sauce or pickling brine. Forget the olives and proscuitto, cheese platter and grapes: the banh mi bar had arrived, and in less than an hour, Nguyen’s fans had picked every platter clean. As she writes,
“Banh mi started out as a colonial novelty in Vietnam, became a nationwide favorite, was transported and transplanted via a diaspora, and was enthusiastically adopted by new audiences. Like people in Vietnam, these new fans enjoy banh mi for what it is: a super tasty sandwich.”
Recipe: Hanoi Grilled Chicken
Reprinted with permission from The Banh Mi Handbook by Andrea Nguyen (Ten Speed Press, 2014).
Brilliant foods are often simple foods. I had this tangy-salty grilled chicken at a Hanoi cafe in 2003 and was struck by its bright flavor. So much so that I replicated it upon returning to the States. It’s great with rice but is perfectly at home stuffed into baguette. When possible, grill it over an open flame for a nice charred flavor. The heavy dose of black pepper lends an edge to this chicken.
Makes enough for 6 banh mi
- 1 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- brimming 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 3/4 teaspoons black pepper
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- About 1 1/2 tbsp canola oil
- Trim and discard big fat pads from chicken thighs. If the thighs are large and/or super uneven in thickness, butterfly them. Set aside.
- In a bowl, stir together the sugar, salt, pepper, fish sauce, and lime juice. If needed, tweak the flavor to get a slightly tart-sweet, salty finish. Add the oil, then the chicken, coating the pieces well. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- To grill the chicken, preheat a gas grill to medium or prepare a medium-hot fire, or use a stove-top grill pan heated over medium-high heat with a little oil brushed on. Cook the chicken for 6 to 10 minutes, turning several times, until clear juices flow out when you pierce the flesh with the tip of a knife. Cool for 10 minutes before cutting across the grain. Tumble in the cooking juices to include extra flavor in the sandwich.
Note: When to Flip the Chicken
After putting a chicken thigh on a hot grill or pan, let it sear undisturbed. When there is an opaque border about 1/4 inch, flip the chicken. It should release easily and have nice browning on the underside. The second side will cook in less time, and you can turn it as you like.
Recipe: Daikon and Carrot Pickle
Reprinted with permission from The Banh Mi Handbook by Andrea Nguyen (Ten Speed Press, 2014).
If you only have one pickle for banh mi, this is it. Many banh mi shops opt to use only (or mostly) carrot for their do chua (literally “tart stuff”). In your kitchen, emphasize the slight radish funk for a sandwich with more character and cut the vegetables big enough to showcase their crunch; limp pickles get lost. Select daikon that’s firm, relatively smooth, and no wider than 2 inches . A batch of this pickle requires one that’s about the length of a forearm.
Makes about 3 cups
- 1 medium daikon, about 1 pound
- 1 large carrot, about 6 ounces
- 1 teaspoon salt, fine sea salt preferred
- 2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup (3.5 oz) sugar
- 1 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar
- 1 cup lukewarm water
- Peel and cut the daikon into sticks about 3 inches (7.5 cm) long and 1⁄4 inch (6 mm) thick, the width of an average chopstick. Peel and cut the carrot to match the size of the daikon sticks but slightly skinnier. Put the vegetables in a bowl. Toss with the salt and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Massage and knead the vegetables for 3 minutes, or until you can bend a piece of daikon and the tips touch with- out breaking. They will have lost about a quarter of their original volume.
- Flush with running water, then drain in a mesh strainer or colander. Press or shake to expel excess water. Transfer to a 4-cup (1 l) jar.
- For the brine, stir together the remaining 1⁄2 cup (105 g) sugar with the vinegar and water until dissolved. Pour into the jar to cover well. Discard any excess brine. Use after 1 hour or refrigerate for up to a month.