'The Banh Mi Handbook': A Guide To A Viet-French Sandwich : Code Switch Food writer Andrea Nguyen dives into the story of banh mi, a Vietnamese street sandwich with a French colonial past that's been popping up on menus around the country.

'The Banh Mi Handbook': A Guide To A Viet-French Sandwich

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It's only Saturday, but many of us may already be tiring of meals made with Thanksgiving turkey leftovers. But if you're hungry for something new, try a turkey banh mi. It's a different take on a popular Vietnamese snack that's winning over American foodies. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team stepped in the kitchen with the author of "The Banh Mi Handbook."

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: If you've never tried banh mi, here's what Andrea Nguyen says you're missing.

ANDREA NGUYEN: A party in your mouth because there's like all these things in there that's going on.

GRIGSBY BATES: Nguyen is a food writer and cooking teacher and the author of "The Banh Mi Handbook," a slim manual to help us home cooks make banh mi whenever we want, using ingredients usually found in most grocery stores. The finished product is kind of like this.

NGUYEN: On the outside, that's really kind of light and crisp and the interior's kind of soft. And then you've got meat and pickled vegetables and maybe a little heat from chili and a little cooling cucumbers and the fat that kind of moistens the bread, well, that's oftentimes mayonnaise.

GRIGSBY BATES: The frame for all this deliciousness, Nguyen says, is bread - cheap bread. She's pulling several examples out of a noisy plastic bag.

This is not fancy bread...


GRIGSBY BATES: ...Because I see it in the grocery store all the time.

NGUYEN: Right.

GRIGSBY BATES: You can get two for a dollar.

NGUYEN: But these were three for a dollar, Karen.

GRIGSBY BATES: Oh, I'm shopping in the wrong place.

We're using bolillos. They're a torpedo-shaped roll. You can use other bread. But whatever you use, Nguyen says, make sure it's soft and light inside. Next, we cut up some cucumber.

NGUYEN: You know, sometimes I'll cut just crescents. You can go diagonal.

GRIGSBY BATES: She's also making a fried omelet as a filling option. This, she says, is her go-to when she wants a speedy, simple meal.

NGUYEN: That is like a total quickie. If you've got two eggs, salt, a little cornstarch, a little water. I like soy sauce or a fish sauce and some oil, you're there.

GRIGSBY BATES: Nguyen clicks on her gas range and heats a wok with a thin veil of oil at the bottom. Then she pours in the beaten egg mixture. As the egg sizzles, it blooms into a huge flowery shape, courtesy of the cornstarch. She sets that aside to cool. Meanwhile, we try to decide which pickled vegetables we want to use.

NGUYEN: There're flash pickles. They're not pickles that you need to put into sterilized jars.

GRIGSBY BATES: Today's flash pickles are thin slices of radish and daikon, a crunchy Asian root vegetable. You can substitute carrot if you can't find daikon, which the Nguyen family had to do a lot when they first got to the U.S. in 1975. If they wanted banh mi, they'd get them in cheap sandwich shops until Nguyen's mom, Tuet Ti Nguyen, couldn't stand it anymore.

NGUYEN: My mom said to us in Vietnamese (speaking Vietnamese) which is like you get what you pay for. So let's start making our own.

GRIGSBY BATES: And they've been doing that ever since. With the growth of the Southeast Asian community in many parts of the country, banh mi became favorites of Americans too. And corporations have noticed. A couple of months ago, Yum, Incorporated, which owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, opened its first bahn shop in Dallas. Andrea Nguyen says this is huge.

NGUYEN: You know, when you see a company like that pushing an ethnic food, that means that they're betting on that food going super mainstream.

GRIGSBY BATES: Back in the kitchen, now we're ready to assemble our banh mi. First, the mayo. Then, a few drops of Maggi, a savory aromatic sauce. We took a handful of chicken and some pickle.

NGUYEN: You can even combine pickle.

GRIGSBY BATES: Could I do both?


GRIGSBY BATES: Totally greedy.

NGUYEN: Totally greedy.

GRIGSBY BATES: We added fresh cucumber and a judicious sprinkling of jalapeno.

NGUYEN: And then I finish off with the cilantro. You can eat it just whole like this, but I think it's a little easier to serve it up and cut in half.

GRIGSBY BATES: Heaven on a plate. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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