12 Cookbooks: The Banh Mi Handbook

Post by Matt, Information Services staff

Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from, and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!

I love sandwiches. Ever since I was a kid, they’ve always been my favourite food. From grilled cheese to peanut butter and jam, sandwiches were my go-to meal at any restaurant, my preferred after-school snack, and my first foray into the world of cooking. I still remember my parents teaching me how to properly make a grilled cheese in a cast iron pan, or my mom’s childhood favourite, the brown sugar sandwich, a thin layer of butter sprinkled with brown sugar that tasted sweet and rich, but also helped my grandmother feed nine hungry children all by herself. Sandwiches are nostalgic for me in a very real way. They also helped me begin my meal-making journey when I moved out on my own as an adult. 

For many reluctant cooks, sandwiches can be a great way to practice knife skills, experiment with different flavour combinations, and test out simple sauce and spread recipes in a low risk environment. It’s very hard to ruin a sandwich. As I widened my sandwich horizons, I discovered new types and flavours of delicious bread-cradled toppings. I enjoyed avocado, goat cheese, prosciutto, brie, halloumi, tofu, salmon, tahini, pickled turnips, falafel, pesto and more! I made garlic aioli and hummus. I made biscuits and fried eggs topped with back bacon and cheese. I tried a smoked meat sandwich in Montreal and a lobster roll in the Maritimes. When I began paying more attention to food, I uncovered a whole world of regional and international sandwiches that I never even knew existed. Suddenly, I wanted to try everything: a Philly cheesesteak, a New Orleans po’boy, a Parisian croque-monsieur, a Florida Cubano, a Taiwanese gua bao, an Indian Bombay sandwich, a Malaysian Roti John, even the dreaded Australian Vegemite sandwich.

I also wanted to try bánh mì. A Vietnamese street food staple, bánh mì is a fusion of traditional Vietnamese and French flavours created during the mid 19th century when Vietnam was first occupied by French colonizers. It combines Vietnamese flavours and foods like pork belly, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots and pickled radishes with French imports such as baguettes, liver pâté and mayonnaise. Today, there are thousands of varieties of bánh mì all over the world. 

I’ve never had a bánh mì sandwich, so I truly don’t know what I’m doing. That’s why I turned to Andrea Quynhgiao Nguyen’s The Banh Mi Handbook for expert help.

The Banh Mi Handbook book cover

The Banh Mi Handbook by Andrea Quynhgiao Nguyen

Ten Speed Press, 125 pages, 2014

This book subverted my expectations almost immediately. What I expected was a series of recipes for individual sandwiches with unique toppings and instructions. What I got was a highly customizable series of short, easily attainable recipes for individual sandwich elements and one ‘master’ recipe for combining bread, vegetables, fillings and sauces together into a bánh mì that you design yourself. How exciting! How scary… After reviewing the dozens of recipes and confirming my designs with my vegetarian partner, I compiled a list of elements that I hoped would turn into a passable version of bánh mì.

An overhead shot of a cutting board and wire rack covered with a baguette, cucumbers, jars of sauces, pickled vegetables and baked tofu.

The first of these elements, a French baguette, was easy to find. The second, mayonnaise, was already in my fridge. Of course there are recipes in the book for homemade mayo with more nuanced flavours, but – and this is one of my favourite things about The Banh Mi Handbook – Nguyen actually encourages using store-bought materials when store-bought materials will do. 

As a home cook juggling grad school classes with a full-time job, I love hearing chefs and food writers say things like this. I will take whatever shortcut is offered if it doesn’t significantly degrade the quality of my meal. In my time as an amateur chef, I’ve constantly encountered the opinion that cooking from scratch is not only inherently better, but necessary to making ‘good’ food. That’s not true. Plenty of delicious meals rely on lowly manufactured ingredients. So use that cake mix! Buy those dumpling wrappers! “Everything from scratch = real cooking” is an opinion born out of privilege and ignorance from people with the time and resources to play with their food who are either trying to make themselves feel special or sell you something expensive. Okay, rant over. I apologize, but I just love seeing cookbooks acknowledge the reality of meal-making instead of pretending that we all have infinite time and resources.

My next sandwich ingredient, a ‘Spicy Hoisin Sauce,’ was as simple as mixing four ingredients together and then storing it in the fridge. The ‘Daikon and Carrot Pickle’ required a little more effort. My first obstacle was finding out what a daikon looked like. Also known as a white radish, daikon is a large pale root vegetable about the size of a sweet potato. Chopped into matchstick-sized pieces along with carrots and left to pickle in a jar full of sugar and vinegar, it gains a sharp, sour flavour and becomes a traditional topping for many varieties of bánh mì. Less traditional, but equally as flavourful is the ‘Edamame Pâté’ that I attempted next. Edamame is a Japanese term to refer to young or immature soybeans, often sold still in their pods. Mixed with shallots, garlic, green onion and curry powder and simmered over medium heat, it creates a softened product that can be run through a food processor to make a rough bright green spread.

A jar of green edamame pate, spicy hoisin sauce and pickled carrot and daikon, in front of a cookbook cover.

The final sandwich element was a ‘Baked Maggi Tofu’ that highlights another common staple of bánh mì, Maggi Seasoning. A rich umami-flavoured sauce that can add depth and complexity to all sorts of dishes, Maggi is a popular ingredient in bánh mì that has a long history going back to the 19th century. By slicing up a block of tofu, squeezing the liquid out, and dousing it overnight in a marinade made from Maggi, garlic, black pepper and sugar, you get a flavour-filled, bake-able tofu that takes the place of the traditional meaty cold cuts in a bánh mì sandwich. Hypothetically. This recipe gave me the most trouble for two reasons:

  1. I forgot to read the part about marinating overnight. Yep, I delayed our bánh mì dinner by a whole day because of that slip. Always read the recipe twice, folks.
  1. The tofu tasted mostly…like tofu. Either I made too little marinade or baked it too long the next day because most of the flavour I was expecting just wasn’t there. Discovering the secret to delicious flavourful tofu is a long term cooking goal that I’ve yet to achieve. I’ll get you next time, you bland block… thing…

Finally, it was time to make a sandwich. I started with the baguette, sliced into equal sections and then cut in half lengthwise to create my bread base. Then I layered the mayonnaise, the spicy hoisin sauce, the edamame pâté and the baked tofu onto the baguette. A sprinkling of the pickled daikon/carrot, as well as some sliced cucumber, and I was done.

A sliced sandwich with vegetables, tofu and sauces on a white plate with another sandwich and the bowls/extra ingredients in the background.

The sandwich tasted crisp and bright with a combination of sweetness and heat from the spicy hoisin sauce, as well as a sour crunch from the pickled daikon and carrot. The edamame pâté’s curry flavour stood out distinctly against the more basic array of sweet, sour and rich tasting ingredients, but it also immediately squished out the sides of my sandwich, ending up all over my hands and the plate. The baguette, I later learned, was too hard – which is why Vietnamese baguettes are made with rice flour, making the dough lighter and fluffier, and why many cooks will hollow out the inside to make room for squeezable toppings. The tofu tasted like failure to me, but, according to my partner, it was fine. Despite this, it was the best (read: only) bánh mì I’ve ever had. 

Overall, I would recommend The Banh Mi Handbook for its accessibility, creative design and tasty recipes. If you’re a sandwich fan like me, there’s plenty here to keep you satisfied and lots of opportunities to be creative in your combination of interesting flavours and unique textural elements. Making a sandwich has never been more rewarding.

My time with this book has also inspired me to seek out some professionally-made bánh mì through our local Vietnamese restaurant community. Through doing this, I quickly discovered a new “best bánh mì I’ve ever had” and a few tricks/flavour combos that I’m excited to try at home for next time.

Want to begin your own sandwich world tour or dive deeper into Vietnamese cuisine? Check out these resources from KPL today:

Join us next month when I tackle my greatest food nemesis with the help of a titan and one of her newest books: Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India.

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