Some kids know they want to be doctors or pilots or professional sports players— Andrea Nguyen knew by the time she was 10 she wanted to be a sandwich maker. She says she's been making sandwiches and fooling around with the recipes and the ingredients since elementary school.
The sandwich she fell for first and that she still loves the most? Banh mi. (It's pronounced "bun-mee.") Her latest cookbook, The Banh Mi Handbook, is a guide for home cooks who want to make banh mi of their own.
Banh mi is the culinary love child of two distinct civilizations, the Viet and the French. The French became the colonial power in Vietnam and while the country's citizens could argue about whether there was any benefit to French political oversight, they did agree that the baguette was a happy legacy from that time. There are regional variations: banh mi in the Communist north tended to be simple — maybe some meat, salt and pepper between bread that was crispy on the outside, with a delicate interior.
"In the south," Nguyen laughs, "they lived large like they do in the south here. So a lot of stuff was added — fresh herbs, vegetables, pickles — and the protein could be anything. Chicken, meat, seafood, even pate."
Vegetarians could go all-veggie, or add tofu flavored with aromatics.
The result, Nguyen says, is "a party in your mouth!"
When Nguyen and her family fled Vietnam in 1975, they settled in Southern California. And as some of the earlier Vietnamese immigrants did, they adapted what was in local groceries to make dishes from their homeland. They bought cheap commercial banh mi from businesses started by immigrant entrepreneurs, but didn't find it very satisfying. Finally, one day, Nguyen's mother, Tuet Ti, put her foot down.
"After a while of eating these mass-produced, cheap sandwiches," Nguyen remembers, "my mom would say 'Tien nao cua nay,' which means 'You get what you pay for.' So let's start making our own."
And 40 years later, they still are. The big difference is that now a lot of the ingredients that were considered exotic in many grocery stores across the nation are now pretty common: cilantro, jalapeño chilies, ginger and sriracha are on shelves from coast to coast. And recently, banh mi are popping up restaurant menus and in food magazines.
Banh mi's moment has arrived — which is something commercial entities have recognized. The owners of Chipotle Mexican Grill opened ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen a few years ago to tremendous success. A few months ago, Yum, Incorporated – which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC – opened Banh House, the first of several planned quick-casual restaurants where banh mi are a central part of the menu. Andrea Nguyen says this is huge:
"When you see a company like that in the United States pushing an ethnic food, that means that they're betting on that food going super mainstream." (Another indication: two years ago, Sunset Magazine, that super-mainstream celebration of life in the Western United States, placed banh mi on its cover.)
Banh mi is quick and affordable, but it is not a sandwich to be assembled in a willy-nilly way. There is a protocol to assembling banh mi: First you warm the roll, so the outside is crispy and the inside remains soft. Let it cool just a little bit, then smear mayonnaise (plain or flavored with sriracha or chopped herbs) to the edges of the bread. Sprinkle with Maggi, an aromatic sauce that's often found on grocery shelves near soy (which you can use instead) or gravy enhancers like Kitchen Bouquet. Then add your protein — poultry, meat, tofu, whatever. Top with pickles, then fresh cucumber. Toss on jalapeños, if you like heat, and sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, and/or basil) and you're done.
The cool thing about banh mi is you can riff on it: substitute soy for Maggi, leave cilantro off if you hate it. Use leftover protein — slices of last night's roast, extra shrimp, slabs of tofu that didn't get used up in your stir-fry. Or.... turkey. By the end of the week, there's a good chance that you'll have some leftover turkey around that would just love to be turned into banh mi.
Here's a recipe from The Banh Mi Handbook that uses rotisserie chicken under everyday circumstances. Just substitute slices of leftover turkey for chicken (if you have turkey skin, you can make the cracklings described in the recipe), and you're in business. Bon appetit.
Rotisserie Chicken and Cracklings
Takes about 15 minutes, makes enough for six banh mi.
A small (about 2 lb / 1 kg) rotisserie chicken
Salt, kosher preferred
Splash of canola oil
Use your fingers and/or a knife to take the meat off the bone, reserving the skin for cracklings, if you like. Save any juices. Tear the meat into pieces the size of your index finger so you can tuck it into the bread. You'll have about 1 and 1⁄4 pounds (565 g). Mix with the reserved juices and set aside. If you are not making cracklings, skip this next step.
Crackling lovers — cut the pieces of skin into strips the length and width of your index finger (they'll shrink down). Put into a skillet and cook over medium heat, stir- ring occasionally, for about 6 minutes, until the skin has rendered fat and is the color of an autumn leaf. Transfer to a paper towel to drain and sprinkle lightly with salt. Reuse the skillet (with fat still in it) to reheat the chicken.
Before using the chicken for sandwiches, season it with salt and lots of pepper; aim for a savory flavor in the flesh. Gently reheat the chicken in a skillet over medium heat with a couple splashes of oil or the fat left over from making cracklings. Use a handful of the soft, slightly warm chicken along with some cracklings for each sandwich.
Add your choice of mayos or the garlic yogurt sauce, Maggi, snow pea pickle, cucumber, and cilantro. Sprinkle on the cracklings after laying down the seasoned chicken. Add fresh chile if desired.