If you’ve ever searched the Internet for anything related to Vietnamese food, likely you've stumbled upon Andrea Nguyen’s excellent website, Viet World Kitchen.
Because this is where you go if you have a question about how to make basics like nuoc cham or nuoc mau, and because after you go there for those recipes, likely you’ll stick around to read about her experiments with Sriracha, say, or to consider her take on all the pho shops in El Monte.
In addition to being a fantastic online compendium of Viet-related food and culture, Nguyen has written several terrific offline resources as well: cookbooks, namely, including the fantastic Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors.
In July, Nguyen released her fourth book, The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches, a terrific history and recipe book dedicated to the iconic Vietnamese sandwich.
Thus you'll find recipes for everything from the bread itself to all sorts of fun fillings (cold cuts, as you might expect, but also things like also Sri Lankan-style black curry chicken).
The book is very much a handbook: It's not much bigger than a mini iPad, meaning you can tote it around and contemplate the components of your ideal banh mi while on the subway, in line at Tsujita, etc.
We talked to Nguyen (no relation) about her new cookbook, sandwich history and why we might want to re-consider the price we'd pay for a banh mi. A recipe from her book — an edamame pâté — follows. Consider it a condiment for tomorrow’s lunchbox.
Squid Ink: Why did you choose to write about banh mi?
Andrea Nguyen: The Banh Mi Handbook is my fourth cookbook. The first book I wrote was a Vietnamese cookbook.
AN: Right. It was the first album, and it was a really broad take on Vietnamese food. It had these bits of information about Vietnamese people coming to America and recreating their heritage. The second book was about Asian dumplings, and that’s what was considered a single subject book.
SI: That’s very funny, that Asian dumplings are considered just one subject.
AN: Yeah, that’s a single subject, dumplings in Asia! As a follow-up, I wrote about tofu. How do you tell the story of tofu and the story of Asian food history and its inner connections? I was really tired of tofu being bagged on, because people don't know tofu from an Asian perspective and what Asian people do with tofu.
I feel like my purpose as a writer is to introduce people to Asian food in America, its foundations as well as its potential. There’s a lot of interest in Vietnamese food right now, and I saw an opportunity to take one food — not one subject — and to use that particular food to tell the arc of Vietnamese food in America, or even the arc of Vietnamese food in general.
SI: How did you choose banh mi as that one dish to tell that story?
AN: I thought, if people are interested in banh mi, and banh mi as a sandwich, and everybody loves sandwiches, can I use banh mi to introduce a really broad audience to Vietnamese food and make it accessible? What can we learn from making the food, eating it and what does it tell us about history and people? Sandwiches are enjoying this golden age. We talk about sandwiches a lot.
SI: We do.
AN: And there’s all this history we’re telling through sandwiches. The French introduced this bread [to Vietnam], then somehow in a very humid, tropical part of the world, you get these bakers who can produce fabulous, crispy baguettes. For a long time, French bread was called banh Tay in Vietnam.
SI: Which translates to what?
AN: “Western bread” or “Western things made with dough.” Then it became so widespread as an everyday food in the ‘40s, so they dropped the Tay and they just called it banh mi, as if to say, "It’s just bread to us." As if they took it all in.
When I was growing up, I knew banh mi as bread with just some stuff in it, and it could be just pâté and salt and pepper. But when we would go out to buy sandwiches in Little Saigon, it would have all this stuff. When I was researching the book, I was trying to trace all this, and my parents said, “Well, that’s a Saigon-style sandwich, honey.”
SI: What does that mean?
AN: Right, what does that mean? So I asked my parents to ask their 80-something friends, and my dad sent out messages to his friends. One of his friends is a Southerner who lived in Saigon, and he said that in the ‘40s, you had street vendors making banh mi and they started putting stuff in it. Like, you would have the pickles and the different kinds of meat: not just one kind of meat, but different kinds of charcuterie and pâté. In the really hard-core Vietnamese foodways mindset, that [kind of sandwich] is a Saigon-style banh mi.
SI: Ah ha, the banh mi dac biet.
AN: That’s the banh mi dac biet. But you can have a banh mi as simple as bread with a smearing of pâté, salt and pepper, a little butter or mayonnaise. That’s banh mi, too. I wanted to write a book that says, This is what banh mi can be. It’s just a sandwich, and it’s a tasty sandwich, but you have to understand the parameters. You have to have the bread — it needs to be crisp. It can’t be a fancy piece of bread, because, again, think of these bakers in tropical Southeast Asia trying to get dough to rise. So, the cheaper, the better.
SI: A lot of sandwiches are like that — grilled cheese, say.
AN: Yeah. So bolillo rolls work. Breads you get at the supermarket work, that light French bread, kaiser rolls you find in the bulk section. Gluten-free bread works, too. So in the book, I talk about how to buy bread, or if you want to make it first, how to make bread. And then a master sandwich recipe: You need a vegetable, you need a filling, you need some seasoning, you need some fat. When I started looking around, I noticed people were creating all kinds of mayonnaises. So it doesn’t have be just plain mayonnaise; let’s make some other mayonnaises and have fun with it. But there needs to be some fat in there. And if you don’t have those things coming together, it doesn’t have the synergy.
SI: Is that what you think makes a banh mi a banh mi? As opposed to any other type of sandwich?
AN: There’s the synergy. It’s the ingredients. It’s not a super meaty affair.
SI: It’s not a pastrami sandwich.
AN: It’s not a Langer’s pastrami sandwich. You need to have at least a one to one visual ratio of vegetables to protein, two to one is even better. You want to cut the vegetables thick so you actually taste them, but the meat’s thin.
AN: So you have this French framework for this bread, then Vietnamese people started tinkering and putting all these things in it: chashu with liver pâté, pickles, chiles, cilantro, cucumber. If you want. If not, just have the bread. Because Vietnamese food is about understanding the parameters, and then there is a lot of customization that happens. That’s also very Vietnamese.
SI: The customization part is interesting. People often have a very strict idea of what banh mi is, so when you have fillings that aren’t cold cuts or something else that they would expect, they think it’s not a banh mi. But you're encouraging everyone to put other stuff in it.
AN: The thing is, it’s happening. I went to New York City to Baoguette — they have a mango pickle there, and a sloppy joe filling. I went to Seattle, and my friend took me to Baguette Box, which he launched years ago and sold. He used an almost General Tso’s filling in there, and he used lettuce for crunch. His chicken recipe is in there. I was in Downtown L.A. and tried Bryant Ng's banh mi at Spice Table.
SI: His sandwich was so good!
[Editor's note: The Spice Table closed; it's reopening, sometime, albeit not soon enough. Hi, Bryant!!]
AN: It was! He was doing interesting things with banh mi. Banh mi can be so many things, and it’s happening right now, and I want to showcase that. They’re all legitimate, if you construct them with certain ideas in mind that are still, at their core, Vietnamese. The interplay of textures, the punches of flavors, the herbs, a little chile heat if you want it. It's tangy, but it's not sour; it's tart sweet. A lot of color. You have the protein, and it has to say something — it can’t just be a light thing. It has to be a little salty, because it has to stand up to the other elements.
I wanted to use this particular food, this sandwich, to make beautiful, legit, accessible, Vietnamese food. I wanted to draw people in and say, you can make this beautiful food. The ingredients are within your reach at your grocery store. You’re just unfamiliar with how to bring these flavors together.
SI: And that’s the Handbook part.
AN: That’s the Handbook part. The recipes are structured with the framework at the front, and then fillings. And with each one of the filling recipes, there’s a note section that tells you substitute ideas, how to reheat things, how to assemble a sandwich and the parameters for doing it. Now it’s your turn — you have this protein, now what do you with it? If you can make chashu pork, you can also make chashu chicken, and it’s ok. Because guess what? Vietnamese people are making these substitutes, so you can, too.
SI: Right, it's all just what we all have on hand. It's a funny thing, that we need permission to go outside what we've see in shops, what we've been given or what we've been otherwise told is "authentic."
AN: Yeah, it is permission, to create new things, but to do them well. Because you can't put a dill pickle in a banh mi — that just doesn't work. Or, the thing with the Maggi sauce: what often happens is that it gets translated into "soy sauce." You can use soy sauce, but if you really want the flavor, it's the Maggi. That's what does it. That's the signature flavor.
There are so many amazing things, like the doner kebab. You have these Vietnamese guest workers who go to Germany where they're eating Turkish doner kebabs as street food, and they really like it, and they say, "I'm going to go back to Hanoi, the seat of Vietnamese culture, the birthplace of pho, and I'm going to make Turkish doner kebab banh mi. Since we don't have mutton, we're going to use pork. But we're going to use a spit, and we're going to put in a baguette." That person went back to Hanoi and started this doner kebab banh mi place.
So, there's a recipe for that. And this is probably one of the more far-out sandwiches, but when I put it in a baguette, it tasted beautiful.
SI: And just as "authentic" as dac biet.
AN: Right, just as legit. Because when you take a look at at that doner kebab sandwich, it has a white bread on the outside, crunch from vegetables, a little meat. If you want a little heat, you smear on a chili sauce, and then you have a creamy fattiness from this yogurt-mayonnaise.
This is the evolution, the arc of Vietnamese food. And there's legitimacy. That's what people are doing, and it's cool. And if you can understand the skeleton and the foundation of it, then practice it, you can really do it well.
That's the handbook. I'm giving you guidance. I don't want to be your mother, I want to be your friend to help you make these glorious sandwiches, in all different shapes and sizes. I hope to inspire you to make even more cool sandwiches. Not just "traditional" ones. Because it's happening.
SI: It helps build knowledge, doesn't it? So if you know how to make it, you can appreciate the food itself a little bit more. Then you get into the price issue.
AN: Right. The idea that a banh mi should be cheap is something that has bugged me for decades. I grew up in Orange County, during what I call the banh mi wars: buy one banh mi, get one free! Two for one! Three for two!
SI: Hello, Banh Mi Che Cali.
AN: It was crazy. We'd get bags and bags of banh mi, getting two per person or something. And they weren’t very good. So we started making our own.
Last summer, my sister and I went around to five banh mi shops, picked up a bunch and went back to her house and cut them up. First of all, they were charging $3.50 to $4, so hooray!
SI: That’s a lot better than $2.50.
AN: Right. We had a bunch of leftovers, and I took them to my mom, and she says, “Boy, that’s a high price for a banh mi.” And I’m like, "Mom…"
Because there’s so much labor involved in making this food.
SI: Right. And a banh mi that was $2.50 ten years ago probably should not be $2.50 today.
AN: The thing is, when you go to Vietnam, there’s banh mi of all different prices. I was there in January, and I talked to two vendors. I saw one vendor near a touristy part of Saigon, and they were charging maybe 9,000 or 10,000 VND.
SI: Which is about how much in U.S. dollars?
AN: About forty, fifty cents?
Then I was staying at this little apartment near where this woman every morning set up her little cart. And she only worked till about 9 o’clock in the morning. She fried her egg on a charcoal brazier, and she kept her brazier in her cart, and then she had a shelf where she warmed her bread. I asked her why she does that with the bread, because no one else in town was doing that bread warming business. That’s essentially the same as us putting it in the toaster oven. Everyone else just has their bread, which they slash and then fill. She said warming up the bread makes it taste better. Her sandwiches: 25,000 VND.
SI: Good for her.
AN: With the works. Otherwise, just 20,000 VND. She only sold 90 to 100 of them a day. She gets three bread deliveries each day, fresh bread delivery on a motorbike. And she makes her own mayonnaise, she makes all her own pâtés, she did her own pickles. She fried up beautiful eggs. And selling them in the neighborhood — not to tourists, or in the diplomatic quarter. But people were willing to pay.
Then we went to this other place that’s been open for decades, and they were charging 25,000 to 30,000. They had an actual storefront. The bread there was not lightweight — it was chubby, chewy, dense. It was more like bread you would bake at home. It was in one of these alleyways, and it was 30,000, because the owner was getting better bread. And she was cutting her meat thicker.
So, from 10,000 to 30,000. That’s happening in Vietnam. Why can’t we have that kind of sensibility in the United States for ethnic food? That if you’re going to pay more, you’re going to expect quality and service and consistency. Because that takes time and money.
SI: Right, because a sandwich in general — any sandwich that’s not called banh mi — is usually more than $2.50.
AN: We don’t think about it, but in these little shops on Bolsa where they’re charging $2.50 or $3, there are people back there who are undocumented and getting paid under the table, and they’re not getting benefits. And maybe that’s okay for them, so okay, let’s think about worker safety, and people trying to make better lives for themselves.
SI: Right. It gets into questions of what kind of economy we as a whole want to support.
AN: I posted something about that, and people said, "Well, cheap food isn’t a bad thing." But if the banh mi shop knew you were willing to pay $7 or $8, what do you think your sandwich would be like? It takes a lot of work to make good food.
SI: In your post, I really appreciated that you said — and I’m paraphrasing — that there's this terrible fallacy that cheap Asian food is good Asian food.
AN: That’s across the board, with a lot of ethnic restaurants, because there are these expectations that it’s not good unless it’s cheap. These are immigrant businesses, and these are people who come to the United States and they’re just trying to eke out an existence. They had other careers and lives in their home country, and now they’re just doing whatever they can, and there’s a formula.
SI: And an expectation. It becomes a circle at some point: selling the food cheap, because they think that’s all people will buy, and that’s all people will buy because that’s what they expect.
AN: And there is so much competition. I was just in Little Saigon and was just blown away. At Brookhurst and Westminster, there’s a gigantic Lee’s Sandwiches, and then there’s a Banh Mi Che Cali and something else across the street, and there’s another banh mi place in the shopping center.
SI: How do you distinguish yourself?
AN: Right, how do you distinguish yourself? How do you make a living? And if you care about food, how do you practice your craft and do it well? Well, you have to leave the community. And then if you leave the community to do a crossover project, then people say, "You’re Vietnamese but why isn’t your food cheap?"
SI: Exactly. You’re screwed. How dare you charge this much for pho.
AN: Right. And “I can go to Bolsa and get this.” But you’re not on Bolsa.
People understand what good food is, and what quality ingredients are, but they’re just so used to 20 cents for a bunch of green onions, and 99 cents a pound for chicken. So what if you stepped up to $1.99? Maybe it would taste not just twice as better, but three or four times as better? And you don’t have to eat as much.
SI: Our definition of good might need to change.
AN: Right. It’s a double standard.
Then there’s a sensibility about cultural pride. Vietnamese people tend to apologize for the fish sauce and the mam tom. I’m like, No apologies!
SI: Right, don’t apologize for that.
AN: You sniff a bowl of nuoc mam against a jar of porcini mushrooms, they’re the same. So, no apologies.
When my first book came out, I had a lot of Vietnam vets approach me and they would say, "I had the most amazing food when I was on duty in Vietnam." And I had other people say, "God, I hated that fish sauce." I’m like, Whoa, I’m not representing your PTSD.
SI: Exactly. Project elsewhere.
AN: As a result, Vietnamese people have been apologetic.
SI: The flip side is that sometimes the food ends up being fetishized or exoticized.
AN: In the past, there have been Vietnamese books that took this really gauzy look at the Vietnamese experience, but the ingredient lists were so long that my eyes glazed over. I bought a ton of Vietnamese cookbooks in Vietnam, and I read stuff that my mom’s collected, and some of them were really short. So who is making all this fancy food? I don’t cook it, I’m not seeing it in cookbooks that go back to the ‘40s, so this is bullshit.
SI: Or trying to make it something other than what it really is.
AN: Attempting to make it so special that it fetishizes and exoticizes. Like I’m going to slap on a conical hat and squat in my rice paddy and serve you something.
I just want to make Vietnamese food and Asian food be part of people’s regular routine. Because I make spaghetti and tacos and boeuf bourguignon and muesli as part of my regular rotation, as well as Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese food. So why can’t other people do that, too? I think they can. Because cooking is not rocket science, and it doesn’t need to be.
I’m getting to a point in my career where I do want to present the traditions, but I’d be doing my food a disservice if I wasn’t telling you what was really happening out there. I’m in a position where I can do that, and have it not be dishonest. Authenticity is a fleeting idea; it’s about honesty. I want to present food that I stand behind. Or, say, some people have asked me why I don’t roast my bones in the oven to make pho. And I’m like, Vietnamese people don’t have ovens at home! Have you been to Vietnam? They have braziers!
Restaurant chefs do that, they will roast it. But, frankly, Vietnamese people don’t do that. They’ll roast the aromatics, because that’s what they can manage.
SI: But you say that, and people think you’re doing it wrong.
AN: Or bun bo Hue. I make it really old school. There’s no blood in there, because that’s the way they did it back then. And I don’t need to put all that blood in there, because it’s sort of a filler ingredient. But if you like it as an add-on, then great, but don’t call it a classic. Because that’s not a classic approach.
One time my mom went to order bun bo Hue in Little Saigon, and it comes out and has the blood. She looks at the waiter and goes, What is this? Why is there blood there? And he said, "Because everybody wants it that way now."
SI: Which gets translated as ...
AN: As that’s the only way.
SI: Right. Which it’s not.
AN: Right. So, what I do online and what I write about in books and magazines is to build awareness and educate. I see banh mi as a hyphenated food, this hyphenated American food. It's Vietnamese-American, or it can be Australian-American, but it's a hyphenated food, because you're putting your experience into it. I think nowadays in America, we’re really open to that sort of thing.
Turn the page for a recipe from The Banh Mi Handbook ...
From: The Banh Mi Handbook by Andrea Nguyen
Makes: 1 1/3 cups
Note: To add earthy richness to a sandwich without going the livery route, try this upbeat green edamame pâté. I developed it for meatless banh mi and discovered that it’s good with chicken and seafood, too.
1? cups (8 oz / 225 g) frozen shelled edamame
2 tablespoons canola oil
? cup (1.5 oz / 45 g) chopped shallot
1 large clove garlic, chopped
¼ plus ? teaspoon salt, fine sea salt preferred
¼ plus ? teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon sugar
½ cup (120 ml) water
1 green onion, white and green parts, chopped
1. If the edamame is still frozen when you get working, put into a strainer and flush with hot water to quickly thaw. Set aside to drain.
2. In a small saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until starting to turn golden. Add the garlic and let sizzle for 30 seconds, until fragrant.
3. Add the edamame, salt, curry powder, sugar, and water. Bring to a vigorous simmer, cover, then lower the heat to maintain the simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, checking occasionally, or until half of the water is gone. Uncover and stir in the green onion. Once it wilts, remove from the heat. Cool for 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Transfer to a food processor and whirl until relatively smooth and spreadable, occasionally pausing to scrape down the sides. Add water and salt, if needed, to adjust the texture and seasoning. Let flavors bloom for 10 minutes before using. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
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* Spread atop mayonnaise and drizzle on the Maggi for punch before adding other sandwich elements.
* Instead of curry powder, try a pinch or two of ground turmeric with garam masala or Chinese five-spice powder.