According to cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches are crazy delicious. So much so that crazy delicious is part of the title of her latest book, The Banh Mi Handbook! We totally agree with her, so we caught up with Andrea and she walked us through tips for each element of the sandwich so that we can build our own delicious creations at home. (Hint: it's really not that hard!)
Andrea wrote this book in part because she "wanted to give people permission to play with Vietnamese food." Although banh mi sandwiches have a delicate balance of sweet, savory, sour, spicy, warm, cold, and varying textures, she says there's "no mystery to this." Can't find a certain traditional ingredient? Relax, there are plenty of substitutions you can make and still end up with something really tasty.
There are 8 main components to a banh mi sandwich, and here are Andrea's tips for each part:
1. Bread - If you can't find actual Vietnamese banh mi bread rolls, "Don't sweat it. It's not an ancient Vietnamese secret." The most important thing to remember is that the bread should be a light framework that holds the fillings in but doesn't scrape the roof of your mouth. Look for a non-fancy bread with a cottony, soft crumb. Baguettes from a supermarket, torta or cubano rolls, or even kaiser rolls are good substitutes.
2. Fresh Chiles - Banh mi sandwiches need a spicy element, so use thinly sliced medium-hot chiles like jalapeños or Fresno chiles.
3. Cilantro - Herbs add freshness and pungency, and while cilantro is the traditional choice, you can always use what's seasonal or what you have around like fresh mint, Thai basil, or Italian basil.
4. Cucumber - Cucumber adds a crunchy element as it refreshes and cools the palate from the more strongly-flavored or spicy parts of the sandwich. Don't have cucumber around? Try shredded iceberg or romaine lettuce instead.
5. Seasoning Sauce - This gives the sandwich an extra shot of salt and savoriness, especially since there isn't a lot of meat in banh mis. While the traditional sauce used is Maggi Seasoning, you can substitute soy sauce, tamari, or even Bragg's Liquid Aminos instead.
6. Mayonnaise - Mayonnaise makes the sandwich richer and moistens the bread, but salted butter or even avocado can be used here instead.
7. Pickles - A proper banh mi sandwich has to have pickles, no arguments here. They add crunchy and tangy elements, and unlike Western pickles, banh mi pickles are more sweet than sour. Andrea says this is the one element worth making at home since it's hard to find premade but super-easy to make: there's no canning involved, they last a long time, and you can use leftovers in rice plates, noodle bowls, or salads! (If you're really short on time, though, you can add some sugar to the brine of regular pickles to sweeten them up.)
8. Meat or Other Filling - Whatever filling you choose, whether it's tofu or grilled pork, make sure it's not overly wet or saucy. The filling should be relatively dry, and remember that banh mis don't contain a ton of meat — the ratio of protein to vegetable should be a visual ratio of 1:1 or 1:2. Grilled vegetables are a good vegetarian option.
Are you ready now to go out and build the perfect banh mi? With these tips in mind, you're sure to build something crazy delicious to call your own!
(Image credits: Paige Green; Emma Christensen)