Bay Area cookbook author Andrea Nguyen literally wrote the book on Vietnamese sandwiches with the The Banh Mi Handbook (Ten Speed Press; 2014).
We spoke during a break from a busy tour schedule for her latest cookbook Vietnamese Food Any Day (Ten Speed Press; 2019) to get her take on one of Vietnam’s tastiest exports.
Leilani Clark: Can you talk a little bit about the spread of banh mi to the United States?
Andrea Nguyen: It’s a gateway food. Vietnamese food has been growing in popularity because it’s an extremely friendly food. There are Vietnamese people in every town. As the population matures, the second and third generations don’t want to live in Vietnamese enclaves and they see an opportunity to be small business owners, so they are moving elsewhere and missing their food.
LC: Why are the sandwiches generally priced lower than average?
AN: I think that they should be priced higher. It pains me because the food costs are rising, but the [store owners] are fearful if they raise their prices, they are not going to attract customers. Asian food is perceived as having to be a value meal. But if you source really good bread, or excellent mayonnaise, proteins, herbs—and let’s say you wanted to pay fair wages to people—all of that is going to impact your prices. How do people survive charging $4 or $5? We don’t value the food of our heritage at a higher price point. We don’t have these questions around sushi, but we have those questions around banh mi and pho. But business owners will say, “I’ve got to keep my prices down.”
LC: Anything else that you think people should know about banh mi, any essentials?
AN: A lot of people will say it’s the bread, but you don’t have to get the quintessential Vietnamese-style, lightweight, cheap baguette. You can use a Mexican-style bolillo roll. It’s about the synergy and layering of ingredients. Maggi Seasoning sauce gives it umami, depending on the version. Sometimes it has MSG, sometimes not. Bragg’s Liquid Aminos is very similar to Maggi. When that hits the mayonnaise (it has to be full-fat mayo), it interacts with all the other ingredients creating this beautiful taste sensation in your mouth. You can use salt and pepper if you want, but it needs that Maggi Seasoning, otherwise it’s a bit lackluster. The French introduced that liquid seasoning to Vietnam; we have this bizarre love relationship with it. It’s the thing that I feel like is the flavor of banh mi. That is my taste memory.
Make it yourself! Banh Mi Sandwich Recipe
You can feature practically anything in a banh mi and it’ll taste fabulous. Just remember its framework of crisp bread, a succulent filling, pickled vegetables, chile slices, cucumber, and fresh herbs. The best bread for banh mi feels light, has a thin crust, possesses a cottony interior, tastes faintly sweet, and is often considered commonplace. Be generous with the fat to avoid dry results. And don’t overstuff with protein. A balanced banh mi resembles a salad in a sandwich: The visual ratio of main filling to vegetables should be 1:1 or 1:2. Customize your sandwich via this outline.
Prep the bread
If the bread is soft, rub the crust with wet hands to moisten and then crisp in a 350°F oven (or toaster oven) for about 7 minutes. Otherwise, bake it at 325°F for 3 to 6 minutes. Briefly cool the bread then use a serrated bread knife to slit the bread open horizontally, maintaining a hinge, if possible. Hollow out some of the inside to make room for the filling.
Fill it up
Spread your chosen fat on the two cut sides of bread, covering all the way to the edges. (If using avocado, lay down thin slices and mash them so they adhere to the bread.) Season as you like, layer the filling on the bottom half of the bread, and top with the vegetable add-ins. Close up the sandwich.
BREAD (CHOOSE ONE)
Small French baguette or bolillo roll
Hand-span section of French baguette
Any light, airy bread
FAT (CHOOSE ONE)
Mayonnaise (regular or flavored)
Salted European-style butter
Thin avocado slices
SEASONING (CHOOSE ONE OR MORE)
Bragg Liquid Aminos
Maggi Seasoning sauce
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
FILLING (CHOOSE ONE OR TWO)
1/4 to 1/2 cup thinly sliced Char Siu Chicken, Grilled Slashed Chicken, Sriracha Tofu, or Grilled Lemongrass Pork Chops
2 fried eggs
Liver pâté or liverwurst
VEGETABLE ADD-INS (CHOOSE ALL, SOME, OR NONE)
1/4 cup Any Day Viet Pickle, drained
3 or 4 thin slices medium-hot chile, such as jalapeño or Fresno (with seeds intact for fire and fun)
4 to 6 cucumber strips, rounds, or ovals, a scant 1/4 inch thick
1 to 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped or hand-torn cilantro sprigs, mint leaves, or basil leaves
Reprinted with permission from Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors by Andrea Nguyen, copyright 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.