Unless you’ve completely opted out of eating food for the last ten years, it’s impossible that you haven’t heard the story of banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich sensation that’s become a staple of food trucks and inexpensive eateries from coast to coast. But just in case:
As the French spread their missionary message to Vietnam in the 17th century, before eventually establishing colonial control in the late 1800s, they brought their love of food with them. Eventually, the baguette, which became synonymous with French cuisine sometime in the early part of the 20th century, made its way to the Vietnamese colony, where Vietnamese chefs began to tinker with the classic recipe, making it lighter, fluffier, and airier.
Vietnamese street vendors began experimenting with bánh mì (literally, “wheat bread”), stuffing it with local ingredients, in a riff on classic French baguettes spread with fromage and a bit of jambone. The classic banh mi sandwich is an explosion of textures and flavors: Sweet and tart pickled daikon and carrot, fiery chiles, refreshing cucumbers and/or pickles, fresh cilantro, rich pork and liver pate, roast pork or ham, smooth mayonnaise, and crackly baguette.
We prepare our version of banh mi a little bit differently, while still trying to remain true to the balance, flavor, and texture of the classic. A few notes:
Bread is critically important to a banh mi. It should be neither tough and chewy, nor too fluffy and airy, with a lightly crisp outside, and a light interior. If you don’t have a Vietnamese bakery nearby, a piping fresh French baguette, with some of the inside scooped out, works well in a pinch.
Any mayonnaise works well in a banh mi, though we lean toward Japanese kewpie mayonnaise, for its enhanced creaminess, mixed with a little bit of sambal chile paste.
As banh mi spreads from the street stalls of Vietnam to your local Starbucks, we’re seeing the pate component eliminated more and more often (and don’t even get us started on those chains that are piling an entire chicken Caesar salad onto a sub roll, and calling it a banh mi). It’s a critical ingredient, however; the pork and chicken liver adds a smooth richness to the sandwich that you’re just not going to be able to recreate, without the inclusion of some organ meats. It’s surprisingly simple to make, too, and allows you to introduce some more traditional Vietnamese seasonings. Does making your own pate feel too intense? You can substitute any smooth store-bought chicken and pork pate, but please do try and include it.
Great banh mi sandwiches shouldn’t really be all about the meat; a vegetarian banh mi can often be just as balanced and nuanced as one of its meatier cousins. For our version, we substitute the classic roast pork or sliced ham for a simple hoisin-glazed meatloaf. It doesn’t offer much in the way of textural contrast (since it’s awfully similar to pate), but it offers a big pop of flavor, especially once you glaze it in store-bought Chinese hoisin sauce. Don’t agonize over your meatloaf recipe; honestly, my favorite recipe for meatloaf, even after trying all of the fancy versions made with a pound of minced vegetables and all of that milk-soaked bread nonsense, continues to be the one found on the back of a box of Lipton Onion Mushroom soup.
The Pickled Vegetables
The hero of the banh mi sandwich, your pickled vegetable selection balances all of that fatty richness with a big pop of bright, crunchy, acidic flavor. Shredded carrot and daikon radish are traditional (though you can substitute regular radishes, which have a slightly sharper flavor), with plenty of thinly-sliced cucumber and fresh sprigs of cilantro.
A riff on a classic Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, made with hoisin-glazed meatloaf and homemade Vietnamese-spiced chicken and pork pate.
- 1 pound chicken livers
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 2 eggs soft boiled
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 yellow onion minced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp brandy
- 1/8 tsp black cardamom seeds
- 2 star anise
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 cup daikon (or regular) radish shredded
- 1 cup carrot shredded
- 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 large pieces of baguette, or similar
- 4 mayonnaise
- 4 thin slices prepared meatloaf
- 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
- 1 cucumber thinly sliced
- 18 sprigs fresh cilantro
- 1 fresh jalapeño thinly sliced
In a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle, grind together cardamom, star anise, fennel, and cinnamon.
In a large skillet over medium high heat, combine butter, garlic, and onions. Cook until onions become translucent. Add ground spices and cook until fragrant, being careful not to burn the spices.
Add chicken livers, pork, and salt (to taste), and cook, stirring often, until cooked through, about 15 minutes.
Transfer meat mixture to the bowl of a food processor, add soft boiled eggs, and brandy, and pulse to combine until smooth. Refrigerate while you prepare other ingredients.
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, tossing well to combine and coat. Set aside to quick-pickle for at least 30 minutes.
In a small skillet over high heat, warm meatloaf until cooked through and browned, brushing with hoisin until completely glazed. To assemble the sandwiches, spread each cut side of the bread with mayonnaise. Spread the bottom half with pate, followed by sliced meatloaf. Top with pickled vegetables, cucumber, jalapeños, and cilantro, and serve warm.
We didn't include a recipe for meatloaf, because we don't want you to worry about it too much. Any leftovers are fine, or a basic soup-mix meatloaf preparation works beautifully.