Thursday, April 29, 2010

Veggie Might: Tofu Bánh Mì - Spicy Vietnamese Sandwiches

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

Living in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, I’m surrounded by restaurants of nearly every nationality. I’m proudly well versed in Indian, Korean, Japanese, Ethiopian, Afghan, Thai, and all manner of Mediterranean delicacies. One cuisine, however, is conspicuously missing from my neighborhood United Nations: Vietnamese.

I’ve had many a phō when venturing beyond these borders; but I just recently had my first bánh mì, the outrageously spicy, Vietnamese baguette sandwich, piled high with pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, and, your choice of protein, traditionally paté, pork, headcheese (blargh), or tofu. Guess which I one got?

Sandwiches are the perfect foodstuff—they’re like eating the whole food pyramid with your hands. And báhn mì, my new obsession, may be the ideal sandwich. It’s spicy, tangy, and rich, all on light and fluffy bread.

Ever since my first one at the Vietnamese sandwich shop in CB’s ‘hood, I’ve started seeing bánh mì everywhere, except Hell’s Kitchen. So—you know what’s coming—I’ve started making it myself.

Turns out, bánh mì is pretty easy to make at home, if a little time consuming, but totally worth the effort. Plus, these guys are the perfect party food if you want to impress the pants off your friends. (Believe me.)

A few ingredients distinguish bánh mì from other sandwiches: the bread, the daikon and carrot pickles, and cilantro. Everything else is about personal taste, though some would argue spiciness is a requirement.


Andrea Nguyen of Viet World Kitchen says, “Light, crispy baguette (not the chewy, rustic kind) is essential for encasing without overshadowing the other ingredients.” No arguments here. She even provides a recipe if you want to go all the way with the DIY.

As we’ve learned recently, some folks have a switch in their brain that flicks to “soap” when cilantro collides with their taste buds. That’s the saddest song I’ve ever heard, because cilantro, along with English cucumbers, provides fresh, cool counterpoint to hot peppers (I used jalapeños).

Soy sauce, mayonnaise (or butter), and sriracha sauce are recommended condiments. Sriracha is the Vietnamese version of hot chili sauce. It will set your mouth on fire, so caveat diner.

Choose your own adventure. I made a killer baked tofu with this lemongrass marinade. Veg and nonveg party-goers gobbled it up, and I left with many new pairs of pants.

Daikon and Carrot Pickles (Do Chua)
These pickles are why we’re here. I could (and have) eat (eaten) these alone (in my room) with a fork. Daikon is a root vegetable from the radish family; it’s a bit strong of smell and flavor, particularly when crossed with vinegar, but so, so delicious. Combined with sweet carrots, you’ve got a mighty fine pickle. I used this recipe, with a couple of minor alterations.

With these components, you’re ready to add a new sandwich to your repertoire, wherever you live. So go: amaze your friends as you spread the bánh mì love far and wide.


If you dig this article, you may dig:

Quick and Dirty Daikon and Carrot Pickles
Yields approximately 1 quart.
Adapted from Viet World Kitchen.

1 large carrot
2 medium daikon
1 tsp salt
2 tsp + 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup white vinegar
1 cup warm water

1) Wash and peel the vegetables. Cut into thick matchsticks and place in large bowl.

2) Add salt and 2 tsp of sugar. Knead with your hands until carrot and daikon for about 3 to 5 minutes. The salt will pull the water from the vegetables making them soft and pliable. When the daikon is bendy, you’re ready to brine.

3) Drain the water and rinse the veg.

4) Dissolve the 1/2 cup sugar in warm water and pour over the vegetables. Then add the vinegar. Stir well.

5) Decant in a glass jar or container and refrigerate until you are ready to serve, at least 2 hours or up to 1 month.

6) Cry, it’s so good…and strong…and a little bit smelly, but worth it.

Baked Tofu with Lemongrass Marinade
Yields approximately 4 servings.
Marinade adapted from Battle of the Báhn Mì.

16 oz firm tofu
3–4 cloves garlic
1/3 cup tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp salt
1 tbsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp sesame oil
3 stalks lemongrass

1) Preheat the oven to 400

2) Press the tofu between two plates while you prepare your marinade. Place something heavy, like a cast iron skillet, on the top plate to squeeze out the excess water. This will give your tofu a chewy texture.

3) Peel off the hard outer layers of the lemongrass stalk. Chop coarsely. You only want to use the tender parts closer to the bulb.

Food Processor Method
4) In a food processor, combine garlic cloves, soy sauce, salt, sesame oil, and chunks of lemongrass. Zap for 1–2 minutes or until garlic and lemongrass are finely chopped.

Manual Method
4) Mince garlic and lemongrass. Combine garlic, lemongrass, soy sauce, salt, and sesame oil in a bowl.

Everybody Now
5) Drain water off tofu and slice into 1/8” thick pieces. Baste both sides of slices with marinade and allow to tofu slices soak in remaining marinade for 30 minutes or until absorbed, turning once.

6) Place tofu slices on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. If necessary, turn pan halfway through baking.

7) Allow to cool to room temperature before serving. Eat. Pray. LOVE TOFU.

Quick and Dirty Daikon and Carrot Pickles
1 large carrot: 30 calories, 0g fat, 2g fiber, 1g protein, $.25
2 medium daikon: 122 calories, 0g fat, 10g fiber, 4g protein, $1.20
1 tsp salt: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.02
2 tsp + 1/2 cup sugar: 417 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $.29
1 1/4 cup white vinegar: 43 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $.60
Totals: 612 calories, 0g fat, 12g fiber, 5g protein, $2.36
Per serving (totals/16): 38.25 calories, .8g fiber, .3g protein, $.15

Baked Tofu with Lemongrass Marinade
16 oz firm tofu: 320 calories, 16g fat, 4g fiber, 32g protein $1.50
3–4 cloves garlic: 13 calories, 0g fat, $.036
1/3 cup soy sauce: 66 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 12g protein, $.20
2 tsp salt: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.02
1 tbsp fresh ground black pepper negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.02
1 tsp sesame oil: 40 calories, 4.7g fat, 0g fiber, $.03
3 stalks lemongrass: 30 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 5g protein, $1.00
TOTALS: 469 calories, 20.7g fat, 4g fiber, 49g protein, $2.80
PER SERVING (TOTALS/6): 117.25 calories, 5.2g fat, 1g fiber, 12.25g protein, $.70

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