The bánh mì came out of French colonialism in Vietnam. The Vietnamese took the best of French cuisine—crispy baguettes and umami-rich pâté—and added local ingredients like pickled vegetables called dồ chua, cold cuts, chili peppers, and homegrown herbs like basil, cilantro, and mint to create this sandwich.
Bánh Mì: Layer by Layer
A bánh mì is a cold sandwich with unique flavors and textures. Here is a layer-by-layer breakdown:
- Traditionally, a Vietnamese baguette is used. Compared to French baguettes, it has rice flour, and the dough is kneaded with more force and speed, leading to smaller loaves that are lighter on the inside and crispier on the outside. Unless you live near a Vietnamese market or bakery, they may be difficult to find. It’s okay to use a French baguette.
- This sandwich is filled with a lightly sweetened soy and fish sauce-marinated pork tenderloin. It’s not included in the recipe, but if you happen to be near a Vietnamese grocery store, pick up special cold cuts, like a pork loaf called chả lụa or a pink ham called thịt nguội, for truly authentic flavors.
- Traditionally, an aioli—a simple creamy mixture of egg yolk, oil, salt, and lemon—is used, but mayo is perfect. If you’d like, smear a layer of butter along with the mayo for extra creaminess and umami.
- Traditionally, a Vietnamese pâté, a paste made with dried pork liver, is added to the sandwich. In addition to adding rich flavor, the pâté, along with the mayo and butter, keeps the bread from getting soggy—it’s the perfect travel sandwich and my favorite portable food whenever I take a lengthy trip.
- Sprinkle on Maggi Seasoning—also a French import, originally from Switzerland—for deep savory flavor. It tastes somewhere between soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce.
- The sweet, salty, crunchy, and sour dồ chua, Vietnamese carrot and daikon pickles, defines the flavor of this sandwich, so don’t skip it. It’s easy to whip up a batch to keep in your fridge. Then, you can make a bánh mì whenever you fancy—in our household it’s often.
- Cilantro is the most commonly used herb. If you like a bit of spice, add sliced jalapeños or Siracha.
Make It Your Own Bánh Mì
- Instead of a baguette, use any kind of hearty bread that is crispy on the outside and soft inside. Some options: bolillos, torta, Cuban or French loaves, or Kaiser rolls.
- Some people swear by sliced pork belly braised in fish sauce, garlic, shallots, black pepper, and a little bit of sugar. You could also use char siu (Chinese pork BBQ), meatballs, shredded chicken, head cheese, or any cold cuts you have around. For a vegetarian option, you can use grilled or pan-seared tofu or seitan.
- The pâté is optional. If you don’t prefer it, use butter and/or sliced avocado for a similar creamy texture.
- Instead of cilantro, or even with it, add fresh Thai or Italian basil leaves and fresh mint leaves for extra fragrance. Sliced cucumbers and green onions work too.
- Instead of Maggi Seasoning, use Bragg Liquid Aminos, Worcestershire sauce, or a splash of soy sauce.
How to Plan Ahead
I recommend assembling the sandwich the morning of the day you plan to serve it, but not earlier because the fridge dries out and hardens the bread. You can prep all the ingredients ahead of time—keep the dồ chua, cooked pork, sliced jalapeños, and cilantro in the fridge for a couple of days. Assemble the sandwich when you’re ready to serve it!
More Sandwich Recipes to Try
- Cuban Sandwich (Cubano)
- Reuben Sandwich
- Shrimp Po Boy Sandwich
- Kentucky Hot Brown
- Cauliflower Steak Sandwiches with Red Pepper Aioli
Make the dồ chua:
In a medium bowl, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt, and stir until fully dissolved. Stir in the carrots and daikon and let sit for at least 30 minutes. You can also refrigerate it overnight—it’ll taste better the longer it pickles. This will last up to 4 weeks in the fridge.
Marinate the pork:
In a medium bowl, combine the lemongrass, garlic, shallot, sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, and black pepper. Add the thinly sliced pork tenderloin and toss to coat. Let it marinate for at least 15 minutes or overnight in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Cook the pork:
Heat the oil in a large cast iron or heavy-bottom skillet over medium-high heat. Add the marinated pork, laying them on the skillet in a single layer, and cook until no longer pink and slightly charred, about 5 minutes. You may need to cook them in batches. Transfer the cooked pork onto a large plate.
Note: This will create lots of smoke, so open your windows and turn on the kitchen vent!
Toast the baguette:
Slice the baguette in half lengthwise, but not all the way through, leaving the two sides attached. Open it up like a book and place it cut side up on a baking sheet. Toast it in the oven for 5 to 7 minutes until golden brown. Allow it to fully cool.
Assemble the sandwich:
When the bread is cool to the touch, pull out some of the inside of the bread with your fingers to make room for the filling.
Spread mayonnaise on both sides and sprinkle 2 or 3 dashes of Maggi Seasoning. Spread the pâté on the bottom half only. Top it with the cooked pork, the do chua (drain the pickling liquid so the bread doesn’t get soggy), jalapeños, and cilantro.
Slice in half crosswise and enjoy!
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