Like many people, I love bánh mì sandwiches and almost always order one when I eat at Vietnamese restaurants, including from the beloved Brooklyn spot right around the corner from Cup of Jo’s office, that I miss so much it hurts. But I could never quite replicate the sandwich at home. Until last week, when I made the one you’re looking at above for a perfect summer dinner…
In Vietnamese, the term bánh mì means “sandwich,” but it also means “bread,” and according to Andrea Nguyen, author of Vietnamese Food Any Day, they are inextricably linked. “When you bite into one, you’re eating Vietnamese history and culture,” she told me. “The French introduced bread, butter, mayonnaise and pate plus Maggi — which is part of the signature bánh mì flavor for me — and resourceful Viet cooks ran with it all to create something of their own.”
The run-with-it-philosophy is central to assembling a bánh mì, which checks every box on the Ideal Sandwich Checklist — sweet, hot, pickled, creamy, crunchy — if you follow the traditional framework. “That’s Vietnamese food and cooking,” she says. “Know the rules, then create something of your own.” In her book, Nguyen lays out that framework which goes something like this:
Bread (light and airy) + Fat (choose one: mayo, butter, or fork-smashed avocado) + Seasoning (choose one: Maggi, liquid aminos, or soy sauce) + Filling (choose one: tofu, fried eggs, grilled chicken or pork) + Vegetables (choose all or some: pickles, chiles, cucumber strips, fresh cilantro, mint, or basil)
Even though the resulting flavor is riotously complex, let me be very clear that with this loose guide, the making of one is not at all. (I mean, it’s a sandwich, right?) Once I committed to my preferred combination — tofu, mayo, pickles, cucumbers and cilantro — I realized that there were only two components that required actual prepping, Nguyen’s Sriracha Tofu and her “Any Day” Viet pickles. (And FWIW, both can be prepared ahead of time.) When those two were ready to go, dinner became a strict assembly job.
Below are the exact instructions for that version, but this weekend we’re planning on one made with chicken, avocado, chiles, pickles and mint. Maybe next we’ll go with fried eggs, butter, Maggi, pickles and cilantro? It feels like you can hardly go wrong and according to Nguyen, it’s the easy customization that makes them so appealing. “It’s a super exciting, nimble sandwich,” she says. “And that’s my favorite food group.”
Step 1: Make “Any Day” Viet Pickles
12 ounces red radishes, unpeeled and sliced into 1/8-inch thick rounds
One 6-ounce carrot, halved and thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons sugar, plus 1/2 cup
1 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar (preferably Heinz)
1 cup lukewarm water
In a mixing bowl, toss the vegetables with the salt and 2 teaspoons sugar, let sit 10 minutes to soften. Then rinse with water, Drain in a mesh strainer or colander and press or shake to expel water. Transfer to a jar.
In a medium bowl, stir together the remaining 1/2 cup sugar with the vinegar, 1 cup water until dissolved. Pour enough of the liquid into the jar to cover the vegetables, discard any excess, and let sit for 1 hour. Use immediately, or refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Step 2: Make Sriracha Tofu
10 to 12 ounces super-firm tofu
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon Bragg Liquid Aminos, Maggi Seasoning Sauce (in a pinch you can use soy sauce)
2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons sriracha
1 tablespoon canola or neutral oil
Cut the tofu into batons as shown. (You should have about 10 to 12 pieces.) In a large nonstick skillet, combine the water, liquid aminos (or Maggi) and sriracha and stir to mix. Add the tofu and turn several times, then arrange flat in the skillet for maximum exposure to the seasonings. Set the skillet over medium heat and when bubbling begins, after about 2 minutes, use chopsticks or a silicone spatula to flip the tofu. Continue cooking to allow the seasonings to concentrate and stick to the tofu. When little liquid remains in the pan, about 2 minutes, drizzle 1 1/2 teaspoons of the canola oil over the tofu. Shake the pan to dislodge the tofu and flip the pieces again.
Let the tofu gently sizzle for 3 to 4 minutes to dry out and brown. Midway through the cooking, when the underside is mottled orange or maybe browned, drizzle on the remaining canola oil and flip the tofu. The finished tofu will have an orange-brown color with some dark brown spots. Transfer the tofu to a rack and allow it to cool and dry before using.
Step 3: Make Your Tofu Bánh mì Sandwich
A few more rules from Nguyen before you put everything together: Don’t get fancy bread. Head to the supermarket, supermercado or a bodega — the best bread for banh mi has a thin crust, possesses a cottony interior, tastes faintly sweet and is often commonplace. After heating your bread or rolls, you’ll want to remove some of the interior with your fingers to reduce the doughiness. You don’t want the bread to fight with what’s inside. Lastly: Don’t overstuff your sandwich with protein. A balanced banh mi resembles a salad in a sandwich: The visual ratio is 1:1 or 1:2. This recipe makes 4 sandwiches
4 light airy rolls or hand-span sections of French baguettes (see note above)
4 tablespoons mayonnaise, mixed with 1 1/2 teaspoons sriracha
10 to 12 sriracha tofu batons (see recipe above)
1 cup Any Day Viet Pickles (see recipe above)
drizzle of Maggi seasoning sauce (or Bragg Liquid Aminos or soy sauce)
1 small cucumber (enough for 4 to 6 rounds per sandwich), the kind you don’t have to peel
generous handful fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
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. Let it cool, then slice open horizontally, leaving a “hinge” on one side. Hollow out some of the inside to make room for your fillings.
Spread mayo on each of the two sides of the bread, covering all the way to the edges. Stuff with tofu, pickles, a drizzle of Maggi seasoning sauce, cucumbers and cilantro.
The bánh mì recipe (including the pickles and tofu) are inspired by or excerpted with permission from Ten Speed Press, publishers of Vietnamese Food Any Day by Andrea Nguyen. For more Andrea, follow her on Instagram.
P.S. A three-ingredient tomato sandwich and Ruth Reichl’s steak sandwich.
(Photograph of Andrea Nguyen by Aubrie Pick. Others by Jenny Rosenstrach.)