When we look back in 20 years, we’ll see that banh mi, the wildly popular Vietnamese sandwich, was having a moment in the 2010s. Like chocolate lava cake in the 1990s or pad Thai in the 1980s, banh mi is one of those dishes that inspire fierce loyalty. But it’s not something those loyal folks make at home. It’s daunting to contemplate the layers of good things that make a banh mi so memorable: pickles and condiments and prepared meats which, generally, no one has just lying around.
The first banh mi cookbook came out last year, and it was an impenetrable letdown. So it was with great excitement that I started making things from “The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches,” by veteran cookbook author and teacher Andrea Nguyen (“Asian Tofu,” “Asian Dumplings,” and “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen”). Nguyen’s books have been models of clarity, so I figured if anyone could demystify the glories of banh mi, she could.
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Step one is bread. The baguette used in a banh mi is a light one with a crisp, yielding crust, and I successfully used French bread or baguettes from the supermarket for many of these recipes. But after a few days, I grew confident enough to try Nguyen’s homemade banh mi rolls. After locating the two odd ingredients — Vitamin C and wheat gluten — I found the rolls easy enough to make several afternoons running, resulting in superior sandwiches.
Next stop: mayos. A good banh mi never suffers from dryness, so we wanted a couple on hand. Homemade sriracha aioli, the easiest, thickens in the food processor into a creamy, piquant, coral-colored mayo that goes with just about everything. Cilantro mayo, heavily flavored with Maggi (the popular seasoning sauce used mostly in Europe and Asia), is even more appealing, but twice I ran into trouble getting it to thicken. The first time, I thought I’d added the oil too fast, so I bailed, rescuing it with a second egg yolk. The second time, I tipped in the oil with great care, but had the same problem. Too hurried for another rescue, I ate it runny, but it tasted good anyway.
Some quick pickles are easier than you’d guess. Usually they involve little more than salting and a sugar-vinegar brine; then it’s just a matter of giving them some time. Pickled shallots sit overnight, the vinegar taming their pungency to something sour yet bright. And a mix of daikon (or regular radish if that’s what you can find) and carrot lends its sweet and tender crunch to any sandwich. We added plain-old cucumber slices to most sandwiches, too, as a cool underpinning for the pickles.
Chicken fillings are uniformly easy on a weeknight. Chicken thighs pop with flavor with a simple fish sauce-lime marinade. Chicken sausage patties, bound with rice flour, borrow a mild sweetness from oyster sauce. And oven-fried “chicken katsu” are little more than panko-covered chicken cutlets baked in the oven, but the oil built into the dredging stage makes them sizzle up nicely.
Pork fillings take a little more work, but they’re memorable: an eye-watering overnight puree of shallot and lemongrass does wonders for pork shoulder when you slice it for skewers the next day. Meticulous knife instructions for dealing with the skin and fat of pork belly lead to cracklings I can’t stop wolfing down, even though the meat is rubbed with nothing but five-spice powder, sugar, and soy.
Viet home-style doner kebab is a porky play on the beloved lamb sandwich most of us know as gyro or shawarma. Instead of spit-roasting, however, this is a fast, food-processed pork paste that turns into meat loaf in the oven; garlicky yogurt sauce stands in for tzatziki. And yes, you can make sausage at home in a food processor; it’s wrapped in subtly scented banana leaf and then briefly boiled in a water bath.
If you decide to forgo meat, a coconut curry tofu cooks down quickly in a slurry of curry powder, fish sauce, and coconut cream; the liquid saturates the tofu until there’s nothing left but oil, which gives the surface a gleaming crust.
Why make so many proteins? I’d hoped to have enough on hand to try several at once in the same sandwich, the way you’d get them at a banh mi shop. Alas, they were too delicious. We devoured them, every one, each night, and there were none to mix and match. But the solution is obvious: We’ll simply have to try again.
T. Susan Chang can be reached at [email protected]