Editor’s note: This story was originally published August 10, 2011. With Matthew Odam’s list of the top 10 bánh mì shops in Austin, I dug it out of the archives so you can get some tips on making this popular sandwich at home.
Subway has nothing on bánh mì.
There’s a time and a place for a $5 footlong stuffed with cold cuts and shredded lettuce, but the bánh mì –– a Vietnamese sandwich served on a baguette with pâté, mayonnaise, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeños and meat or tofu — packs a serious punch, often for less than $4 a sandwich, including tax.
Bánh mì (prounounced “BUN-mee”) is the ultimate fusion food, a remnant of the French occupation of Vietnam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when baguettes, pâté and mayonnaise entered Vietnamese cuisine.
When the French lost control of the country in the mid-1950s, the sandwich remained and has become one of the most widely embraced Vietnamese dishes around the world.
Bánh mì are less sloppy and fried than po’ boys, but the distinction becomes less clear at places like Tam Deli in North Austin, where you’ll find a deep fried shrimp banh mi that could be mistaken for its Cajun cousin. Some restaurants serve the vegetables on the side so that the bread won’t get soggy if you buy one to go.
READ MORE: The best places to eat bánh mì in Austin
The name, which means “wheat cake” in Vietnamese, refers to both the bread and the sandwich, and it can be difficult to find just the right bread in a place like Austin, where there aren’t many places specializing in Vietnamese baked goods.
Don’t live near a bánh mì shop? If you think about the sandwich in elements — the bread, the pickle, the bite, the green, the meat, the sauce — you can create your own spin on one of Vietnam’s signature exports.
The baguettes used to make banh mi sandwiches usually contain both wheat and rice flours, which give the bread an even lighter texture and crispier crust than traditional baguettes. You might have to settle for whatever long crusty loaf your supermarket is selling. You can substitute a hoagies or ciabatta if you absolutely have to, but one of the best alternatives to a baguette is a toasted Mexican bolillo. Whatever bread you choose, tear some of the bread out of the middle to create a pocket for the ingredients and toast the bread until the outside is crispy. After all, the bread is merely a shell for what’s inside.
Almost all bánh mì sandwiches come with a light slaw of pickled carrots and daikon, a long white Asian radish found at specialty stores and Asian markets. It’s easy to quickly pickle your own thinly sliced or julienned vegetables by letting them marinate for 15 minutes in a mixture of rice vinegar or white wine vinegar and a little salt and sugar.
If you want to experiment, try using kimchi, the fermented Korean condiment, or a quick pickle with other vegetables such as radishes or beets.
Bánh mì really isn’t bánh mì without fresh cilantro and long, thin slices of cucumbers, the cool elements that make the sandwich taste so fresh. You can substitute or supplement the cilantro with other fragrant herbs and leafy greens such as Thai basil, Mexican tarragon, watercress, sorrel or even mint. For a cucumber alternate that still adds a cool crunch, you could use thinly sliced raw zucchini, squash or jicama.
Jalapeños give most bánh mì their bite, but you could just as easily turn to serranos or sriracha hot sauce for some kick. Want an even milder sandwich? Try thinly sliced green peppers.
The original Vietnamese baguette sandwich relied on spreadable meats like pâté, but now you’re just as likely to find barbecue pork, ham, rotisserie chicken, shrimp or meatballs on bánh mì. You can marinate thin slices of pork tenderloin or pork chops and then pan sear in a pan, but leftover grilled steak or pulled pork or chicken work just as well. Tofu marinated in soy sauce, garlic and ginger or tempeh can be used instead of meat.
Mayonnaise has replaced butter as the primary spread on bánh mì, but you don’t have to stop there. You can use the slightly sweet Japanese Kewpie mayo, or doctor up your own by whisking mayo with chile paste, hot sauce, minced herbs, cayenne pepper, lime juice or fish sauce. Chutney can add an element of sweet, too.