If you have ever visited Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, or happen to live in a part of the United States with a large Vietnamese population, I hope you have experienced the wonders of banh mi -- baguettes filled with pickled carrots and daikon, fresh cilantro, and meat or tofu. The sandwiches are crisp, salty, tangy and sweet, the perfect marriage of French and Vietnamese influences. However, if you don't have a local banh mi shop, or if you just want to make a vegetarian version at home, what follows is a recipe for a flavor-packed lunch or dinner.
Banh mi literally means "bread," and the baguette traditionally used for the sandwich is a Vietnamese spin on the French classic. A combination of rice and wheat flour makes it light and fluffy with a thin, crackly crust. For a home version of the sandwich, it's fine to use any fresh, soft baguette; I usually get mine at a Filipino or Italian bakery. Of course, you can bake your own, too, but avoid using artisan-style breads, which tend to be too thick and chewy.
Traditional banh mi fillings include pork, pate, tofu or eggs. Our favorite vegetarian version has savory slices of lemongrass and garlic-marinated tofu. Fresh fillings and garnishes such as do chua (pickled daikon and carrot), cucumber, cilantro and hot peppers may be adjusted to your liking. And be generous with the mayo! We like to spike it with cilantro and Maggi, but you may also use plain mayo (try homemade) or mix in crushed garlic, chilies, pepper and so forth.
Banh Mi with Lemongrass Tofu
Makes 2 sandwiches.
2 (8-inch) baguettes
Do chua (pickles):
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
1 cup julienned daikon
1 cup julienned carrots
6 to 8 ounces extra firm tofu (half a standard package)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 bulbs lemongrass, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
Optional: Maggi seasoning sauce or soy sauce
Additional fillings and garnishes:
1 medium cucumber, sliced lengthwise
1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, sliced
Small handful cilantro
For the do chua (pickles):
In a large bowl, combine sugar, salt, vinegar and water. Add daikon and carrots and toss. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour. Drain completely before using. (Note: The measurements given are guidelines; feel free to adjust the sugar, vinegar or salt to your own taste.)
For the tofu:
Cut tofu into 1/4-inch thick slices and press between clean kitchen towels or paper towels to rid of excess water. In a shallow dish, combine soy sauce, vegetable oil, sesame oil, lemongrass and garlic. Place tofu in dish, gently coat slices with marinade, and arrange so they overlap as little as possible. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour. Cook in a skillet over medium heat until brown and crisp on each side.
For the spread:
In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise and cilantro. Add Maggi or soy sauce to taste, if desired.
Slice baguettes lengthwise, leaving one side as a hinge. Spread mayonnaise on top and bottom halves. Arrange fillings and garnishes: cucumber, do chua, tofu, jalapeno, cilantro.
(Emily Ho is a writer for TheKitchn.com, a nationally known blog for people who love food and home cooking. Submit any comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.)