The Traveling Gourmand devours Vietnamese history on a plate

in Non-Fiction by

Some meals represent more than the sum of their ingredients; they are history on a plate. Such dishes speak to us of the great migrations and conquests of the past, of suffering and celebration and adaptation to change.

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Andrea Nguyen

Vietnamese banh mi is a dish that offers a snapshot of history. It’s a sandwich of various meats and various condiments combined on crusty bread. This might not seem remarkable to a Westerner—until you recall that in Vietnam, like much of Asia, leavened bread is the exception at the table. Rice—not wheat—is the dominant grain. Banh mi is a culinary mash-up that resulted from the French occupation of the region from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.

Food writer Andrea Nguyen reveals the secrets of this sandwich in her new book, The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches (Ten Speed Press). Nguyen, a Vietnamese American who has written several much-lauded books on Asian cuisine, explains that banh mi was invented by Vietnamese street vendors who adapted the French combination of baguette and paté. But the author mentions this history only in passing; her book is all about making mouthwatering banh mi. 

I had known that the French baguette took root in Indochina; what I didn’t know before reading this book was that French mayonnaise and paté were also embraced. These French imports were enhanced with local fare such as tangy pickled vegetables, fresh cilantro and crunchy cucumbers, hot chile peppers and Asian condiments like fish sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and Maggi seasoning (the last, another Euro-transplant that has become part of Asia’s larder). Nor were the animal proteins in the sandwich limited to French-style liver pate; Vietnamese cooks used everything from what Nguyen calls cold cuts (her catch-all phrase for all sorts ground meat terrines and sausages served cold) to roasted or boiled beef, pork, chicken and fish, all typically seasoned with Asian staples like Chinese 5-spice powder, lemongrass, and soy and fish sauce.

Nguyen chronicles all of this, offering recipes for the many components of banh mi that are very do-able for the American home cook. These include both traditional and contemporary sandwiches, and some that Nguyen has designed herself. Banh mi is typically eaten for breakfast or lunch, but American readers might find that they are ideal for summer suppers, as most can be served at room temperature, and are full of crunchy pickled and fresh veggies. It’s history on a plate, deliciously so.

Daikon and Carrot Pickle

As Andrea Nguyen explains in her book, every banh mi sandwich is made on crusty bread spread with mayonnaise or some sort of rich spread, and seasoned with fish sauce, soy sauce, Hoisin, oyster sauce or a combination of these condiments. Next comes the protein filling—your choice of seasoned pork, beef, chicken, fish or even tofu—followed by tangy pickled vegetables (these are a must), spicy chili peppers, and crunchy cucumber slices and/or fresh herbs (usually cilantro). Here is one of Nguyen’s recipes for pickles. She notes, “If you only have one pickle for banh mi, this is it.”

Makes about 3 cups

Takes about 20 minutes, plus 1 hour for marinating

1 medium daikon, about 1 pound

1 large carrot, about 6 ounces

1 teaspoon salt, fine sea salt preferred

2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup sugar

1 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar

1 cup lukewarm water

Peel and cut the daikon into sticks about 3 inches long and 1/4 inch thick, the width of an average chopstick. Peel and cut the carrot to match the size of the daikon sticks but slightly skinnier. Put the vegetables in a bowl. Toss with the salt and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Massage and knead the vegetables for 3 minutes, or until you can bend a piece of daikon ad the tips touch without breaking. They will have lost about a quarter of their original volume.

Flush with running water then drain in a mesh strainer or colander. Press or shake to expel excess water. Transfer to a 4-cup jar.

For the brine, stir together the remaining 1/2 cup sugar with the vinegar and water until dissolved. Pour into the jar to cover well. Discard any excess brine. Use after 1 hour or refrigerate for up to a month.

Note: If the daikon gets stinky, open the jar and let it air out for 15 minutes before using. The pickle hasn’t gone bad.

Reprinted with permission from The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches by Andrea Nguyen (Ten Speed Press).

Karen Berman is a writer and editor who specializes in food and lifestyle topics. Her books include Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family and Easy-Peasy Recipes: Snacks and Treats to Make and Eat. She has worked as an editor on some 35 cookbooks and written more articles than she can count. She holds a certificate in cuisine from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and her culinary travels have taken her as far as the Thai House Cooking School in Thonburri, Thailand. Among her current titles are senior content editor of TheWeiserKitchen.com and managing editor of NYFoodstory: The Journal of the Culinary Historians of New York. She is mom to daughter Jessica, her best food critic.