Vegetarian Banh Mi Sandwich
This is a vegetarian/vegan take on the classic Vietnamese sandwich. Even if you love the meat version like I do, you will be just as happy with this one–the pickled veggies and my homemade mushroom paté are the star.
My Sunday morning routine goes something like this: church service followed by two grocery store runs and a final stop at the farmers market. No one place has everything I need so I do my loop around town, ending up at the farmers market at a little after noon, hungry and, even though I have just spent the last two hours refreshing the larder, unwilling to make lunch from scratch once I return home.
Instead, I’d rather wait in line at the farmers market on California Avenue for the best banh mi in town–a classic with paté and ham for me, a veggie for my husband. The short drive home is a struggle because the aroma of the pungent, vinegary pickled vegetables refuses to stay contained in the bag–it tempts me all the way home so inevitably, I walk in the door and dive right into the sandwich without even bothering to put away the groceries first.
The lines to the banh mi stand are long for good reason. The ingredients are fresh, the rolls the perfect balance of crispy/chewy on the outside and soft inside. Plus, the portions are huge and they don’t mind that I ask for extra pickled veggies and peppers with every order. It’s eight dollars (each) well spent for the best Vietnamese sandwiches I’ve ever tasted (both the carnivore and veggie versions) and for the past few months have been meaning to recreate a vegetarian banh mi in my own kitchen.
What is Banh Mi?
Literally translated, banh mi means bread [made of wheat]. Here in the West the term has come to be synonymous with the classic Vietnamese sandwich. A product of French colonial rule, the banh mi was born after the baguette was introduced to Vietnam in the mid 19th century. It’s a tasty fusion of two cultures–popular fillings include French paté and/or ham mingling with pickled Asian vegetables, mayonnaise, peppers and cilantro. While my local vendor also sells one with grilled, marinated pork I grew up with the classic paté, ham, head cheese and the assortment of vegetables.
The baguette is critical and can make or break banh mi. I’ve seen hoagie rolls being used instead of Vietnamese baguettes and this just doesn’t work. Even the Italian sourdough baguette I used here isn’t quite the best option because the crust is thick and hard but it was the best I could find.
Though rooted in French tradition, Vietnamese baguettes have characteristics that differ slightly from their French predecessors. A proper Vietnamese baguette is smaller, has a light, thin, crisp-chewy crust and a soft crumb. You should be able to bite into it easily but it shouldn’t be too doughy.
As for the important fillings, pickled daikon radish and carrots are a must for me…as is a good paté.
How to Make a Vegetarian/Vegan Banh Mi Sandwich that will Rival the Carnivore Version
I love a good banh mi with ham, liver paté or grilled pork and if you can source a good quality Vietnamese baguette a classic meat-based sandwich is easy to put together. I’m lucky in that my local grocery store sells French ham and liver paté is widely available. Since my husband tends to prefer the vegetarian version of banh mi, I challenged myself to recreate it home.
Paté: It starts with a good paté and if you’ve been visiting my blog for the past few months you might have come across this recipe for Vegan Mushroom Paté which was wholly inspired by this challenge to make my own vegan Vietnamese sandwich. It’s very easy to prepare and is perfect on its own. It’s been the highlight of my appetizer table for the past few months and I was very happy to finally use it in a sandwich.
Pickled Vegetables: The pickled daikon radish and carrots are the next important components of a good banh mi–without them the sandwich wouldn’t be Vietnamese. They add crunch and punch and combined with fresh cilantro, cucumber and chili peppers, brightness, too. The quick-pickling method is very easy and the vegetables are ready in around one hour. And if you like chili peppers in our sandwich like I do, try pickling them with the radish and carrots instead of raw–you won’t be sorry and the chili-infused brine will impart a little kick to the vegetables, too.
Tofu: Besides the paté, tofu–the other protein–is almost an afterthought considering its bolder companions but it’s no slouch here either. I’ve borrowed the classic preparation for Vietnamese grilled pork by marinating the tofu in a lemongrass-garlic-soy mixture. (Note: You can use seitan instead of tofu but I don’t have much experience with it. My local banh mi stand uses both in their veggie sandwich.)
Once assembled, my veggie banh mi is the perfect blend of sweet, tart, fresh and bright. My carnivore taste buds don’t miss the meat at all and I was very happy to be able to cross this challenge off the list. I continue to search for a homemade Vietnamese baguette recipe and when I do, you can be sure I’ll share it here with you.
Vegetarian Banh Mi Sandwich
This is a vegetarian/vegan take on the classic Vietnamese sandwich. Even if you love the meat version like I do, you will be happy with this one–the pickled veggies and my homemade mushroom paté are the star.
For the Banh Mi
- 4 French Rolls about six inches long (or cut baguette)
- Mushroom Pate (Click for recipe)
- Pickled Daikon Radish and Carrots (See Below)
- Sliced Jalapeño, Serrano or Fresno peppers (optional, See Note)
- Tofu, marinated and cooked (See Below)
- Sambal Mayo (See Below)
- 1 Cucumber, jullienned
- 1 block Extra Firm Tofu, drained, sliced roughly 1/4 inch thick
- 1 stalk lemongrass, chopped (bottom third, white part and tender insides only)
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce omit if vegan and use more soy sauce)
- 1 tablespoon recap manis (or oyster sauce or regular soy sauce with 1 T sugar)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil plus more for cooking
- 1 tablespoon water
Pickled Daikon Radish and Carrots
- 1 medium Daikon Radish, peeled and julienned
- 2 carrots, peeled and julienned
- 2 cups warm water
- 1 cup white vinegar
- 4 heaping tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt 1 1/2T if using regular table salt
- Mayonnaise if vegan use Vegenaise
- Sambal Oelek (or sriracha if you prefer it)
Marinate and Cook the Tofu
Marinate: Using a mortar and pestle, pound the chopped lemongrass, garlic and salt into a rough paste then toss with the oil, water, fish sauce and soy sauce. Drizzle over the sliced tofu in a shallow bowl to make sure you coat as much of the tofu as possible. Marinate for at least one hour or as long as several hours.
Cook: Heat two tablespoons olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Cook the tofu for two to three minutes on each side or until slightly caramelized and golden. Set aside until you are ready to assemble the sandwiches. Depending on the size of your pan you may need to cook in batches. I got 12 slices out of my block of tofu (I used three slices for each sandwich).
Prepare the Pickled Radish and Carrots
Stir together the warm water, vinegar, sugar and salt until the latter two have dissolved. You can use a large Tupperware container or two canning jars like I did and fill the container(s) with the carrots and radish. Pour the brine into the container making sure the vegetables are covered. Allow to cure for at least one hour. A minimum of two hours is best. (Note: I also pickled my peppers but this is optional–sliced raw is just as good.)
Plain mayo would be just fine here but if you want a little kick, add as much samba or sriracha as your taste buds will tolerate. I added one part chili sauce to two parts mayo.
Assemble the Banh Mi Sandwich
Slice the rolls lengthwise without cutting through the roll completely. Leave one of the long ends uncut to make it easier to stuff the bread with the fillings. I prefer my rolls lightly toasted but this is optional.
Slather the sambal mayo on the inside bottom half of the roll followed by the mushroom paté (I like a generous portion). Add the tofu slices followed by the cucumber, pickled vegetables, cilantro and sliced peppers. Use your taste buds to decide how much of each item you want to use. I like to go heavy on the pickled vegetables, cilantro and peppers. Serve and enjoy.
Vegan Banh Mi: Use your favorite vegan mayo and omit the fish sauce in the tofu marinade.