Bánh mì! Where had you been all my life?
As much of a sandwich lover as I am, it’s surprising that I’d never heard of bánh mì (pronounced bun me) until a few years ago. Though specific ingredients can vary, this Vietnamese sandwich is typically made with grilled meat or tofu, cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro, pickled carrots, daikon radish, and a spread such as aioli or pâté on toasted crusty baguette-like bread. It’s got all the flavors and textures I love in one balanced bite: pickled, crunchy, spicy, chewy, brightness, and just enough richness.
This may seem like just a kitchen sink, everybody-in-the-pool mash-up, so what’s really at the heart of this traditional Vietnamese sandwich? I asked Alexandra Nguyen, owner of Lotus Asia’s Best restaurant in San Luis Obispo. (fyi — the online menu doesn’t yet list the bánh mì, and Lotus also makes a yummy rare beef phở.)
“If I have to decide, I would have to say that the bread is the essential element of bánh mì,” Nguyen said. “A light crispy baguette is essential for encasing the other ingredients without overshadowing them. The texture needs to be crispy (not hard) on the outside, but soft, light and airy on the inside. If it is too toasted, chewy or is hard, it will be difficult to chew. Flavor wise, it cannot be too sweet, too salty, too sour … a nice blend that gives the slight sweet savory taste. The Vietnamese baguette is commonly made with rice and wheat flour, which makes for an airy crumb.”
In fact, Nguyen feels the bread is so key to her bánh mì that she has it specially made for her by Edna’s Bakery in San Luis Obispo. The recipe (like many at Lotus) harkens back three generations to her grandmother’s busy food stand in Vietnam.
It’s worth pointing out that a typical French baguette doesn’t work for a spot on bánh mì due to the nuances that Nguyen has described. The exterior is too hard and the inside isn’t soft enough to envelope the ingredients, so they’ll probably all squish out when you take a bite. Then you’re left chewing and chewing mainly bread – certainly not the case with traditional bánh mi. I’ve actually had better luck at home using Mexican torta bread, but it still doesn’t quite get enough crunch on the crust.
Like many iconic cultural dishes, the bánh mì owes a nod to history. During the French colonial period in Vietnam which began in 1858 and lasted almost a century, French culinary markers such as baguettes, cornichon pickles, and rich pâtés were introduced. As these ingredients drifted through the years, the Vietnamese married them with the traditional flavors of their cuisine: spicy peppers, cucumber, cilantro, other pickled veggies, and bread increasingly made with the easier-to-get rice flour versus wheat flour.
The result is a happy match made in sandwich heaven, so go on, get your bánh mì on, and find out whether your favorite is thit nuong (grilled pork), ga nuong (grilled chicken), thich nuong (grilled beef) …