Vietnamese

A Sped-Up Bánh Mì That Doesn't Skimp On Any Flavor (But Does Lose the Meat)

December 22, 2016

Depending on who you talk to, bánh mì means different things. In Vietnam, it literally means bread. Here, it’s come to mean a Vietnamese-style sandwich, meat-laden or vegetarian. For me, and people like me outside of Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora here in the United States, it specifically means a baguette smeared with pâté, layered with roast pork, sliced jalapeño, and a generous amount of pickled carrots and daikon—just how it was prepared at the small shop in Philadelphia where I first had it.

For all of these reasons, it never feels easy to recreate at home. The requisite pickles as well as the other components (pâté, roasted meat) require advanced planning and time. I always feel the need to run to an Asian market for a sauce or vegetable in an effort to make it taste authentic.

So, when I saw a tofu bánh mì recipe in Cook’s Science, a new cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen, I felt both encouraged by and wary of the short ingredient list and simple process. Could tofu, thinly sliced and pan-fried, stand in for sliced meat? Could quick-pickled vegetables offer the same bite? Could Sriracha and mayonnaise together provide enough heat and richness?

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

As it turns out: yes, yes, and yes. The tofu, thanks to a cornstarch dredging, crisps beautifully and holds its own beneath the layers of vegetables and bread. The vegetables, in just 15 minutes, release much of their liquid, and absorb the sharp, pungent flavors of their fish sauce-lime juice brine. The heap of cilantro provides the necessary note of freshness.

There’s a nice flow in the preparation, too: As the tofu drains, you quick pickle the vegetables. As the vegetables pickle, you stir together the sauce and prepare the herbs. As you fry the tofu, you set up your assembly line. There’s nothing to it, and the more closely you examine the elements, the more familiar it all feels. Spicy, crunchy, creamy, fresh, hearty, bright—bánh mì, however you define it, shares many of the traits of most a great sandwiches.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

A few notes:

  • The pickle: While some sort of pickle is essential, don’t feel you have to use carrots and cucumber. You can use one or the other or substitute what you have on hand. Daikon is commonly used but turnips or watermelon radish can be shredded in place of or in addition to the carrots and cucumbers. Thinly sliced cabbage or shaved Brussels sprouts, I imagine, would work well, too.

  • Shredding: Using a mandoline or a spiralizer for the vegetables will produce an appealing, uniform shape, but it’s not necessary. I’ve shredded both carrots and watermelon radish using the attachment to my Cuisinart, and while the shape isn’t quite as pretty, the shredded pieces pickle faster. You can use a box grater, too.

  • Fat: Mayonnaise and/or butter are typical, but if you’re not trying to keep this vegetarian, pâté is also traditional and delicious. The creaminess of an avocado could play the same role, too.

  • Herbs: Fresh herbs are essential. Cilantro is traditional, but mint, Thai basil, basil, or a combination of all or a few would work well, too. In this recipe, Sriracha (stirred into the mayonnaise) provides a nice kick, but if you want additional heat, you could slice jalapeños and layer them into the sandwich.

  • The tofu: You will have the easiest time cutting, dredging, and frying the tofu if it’s extra-firm or firm. If you don’t want to fry the tofu, you could bake it. You can use this recipe as a guide, keeping the tofu in slices as opposed to cubes. Frying, however, is faster than baking and isn’t too much of a hassle.

  • The bread: Use something like a baguette, hoagie roll, or ciabatta roll. If it’s not fresh, toast it lightly before layering it up. If it’s too bready, scoop out some of the crumb to make room for all of the ingredients.

  • For a vegan version: If you want to make this vegan, omit the fish sauce in the pickle brine and use another tablespoon of lime juice or vinegar plus a pinch of salt. Use vegan mayonnaise, too.

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

2 Comments

Carlin December 23, 2016
What shop in Philly? I live right down the street from the bakery on 16th and it's the best thing ever.
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. December 23, 2016
I'm so embarrassed that I can't remember the name! We lived on 10th between Fitzwater and Catherine (near Morning Glory), and we could walk to the shop, which was south and I think east of us — near washington ave. I did some googling, but I'm not sure the place is still around, but it was one of my favorite things in the world! Jealous you're still in Philly. Such a fun place. <br />