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Banh Mi • The Exotic and Traditional Vietnamese Sandwich

Written by Luisa Davis on . Posted in food

The always-delicious bahn mi sandwich comes from traditional Vietnamese cuisine, and it is famous among food lovers as one of the best street foods money can buy.

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Banh mi nearly tops my list of inspiring meals. I love the richness of the ingredients inside. Sure, I have tried many sandwiches which are loaded with meat and side sauces, but not once had I tried a sandwich with crispy grilled meat and seasoned vegetables before banh mi. That is why, when I had the first bite, it instantly became my first pick among all Vietnamese food.

Since I have now tried several varieties of banh mi, it’s about time that I share an authentic banh mi recipe and share the great culinary experiences I had making this little delight for my family. This sandwich has garnered me more praise than any other recipe so far.

This finger-licking delicious sandwich can be your way to win the hearts of those whose hearts you are seeking to win. Start scrolling! I am about to share with you everything about banh mi, from its history, origins, and varieties to its basic ingredients and the way to put them together. This will be nothing less than a roller coaster ride of fun and flavor.

What is Banh mi?

In Vietnam, there is a special kind of sandwich which is called Bánh mì. It looks like a long sub roll split in half and stuffed with a number of fillings inside. Originally, it is made using a Vietnamese baguette which differs from other kinds due to the thin crust, pale color, and spongy texture. The secret behind the popularity of this sandwich is the variety of fillings it has to offer.

People usually order different meals to enjoy different flavors of meat and vegetables, but banh mi can offer you all, as it is available in lots of varieties. Within Vietnam, it is served in at least 12 to 14 different styles. This feature of this sandwich can serve the purpose of the people who easily get bored with their routine meal like me.

Due to its variety, banh mi is served as an any-time meal, serve at dinners, lunches, breakfasts or at snack tables. In Vietnam, banh mi is a popular breakfast recipe. This is because of its nutritional mix of ingredients. Meat is the source of protein; vegetables give you an immense amount of fibers and minerals, while the bread or baguette provide the carbohydrates.

All these nutrients are packed into a single serving without raising the caloric value of this sandwich. The healthy Banh mi, therefore, attracts several people on healthy diets.

The word banh mi, in fact, comes from French.

Pain de mie is translated as white bread or soft bread in French and it was later twisted into “banh mi.” The word “banh” referred to things like puff pastries and spongy rice cakes back in the early thirteenth century in Vietnam. The country has remained the center of multiple invasions, so its culinary traditions are a mix of several different customs and years of evolution. Banh mi is the product of such an evolution.

The baguette, which is commonly known as a Vietnamese baguette, was in fact introduced to the country by the French. By the mid-19th century, when the country became part of the French empire, it received several cooking traditions, and the use of baguettes was one of them.

The first variety of banh mi was made in the 1950s and it was called Saigon. It was the Vietnamese war which made the dish global, and the overseas Vietnamese spread its word to every part of the world from Australia to the United States, and they all called it banh mi.

The word banh is used for anything baked, and mi means wheat. So, baked wheat bread is banh mi. Banh mi is actually short for the original name of the recipe, and a third word is usually added to define a specific variety of this sandwich, like banh mi with tofu, is known as banh mi chay, and one with fish patties, called banh mi cha ca.

You will get a pretty clear idea when you read more about the different varieties of banh mi here in this article. Let’s not caught up on the name; let’s learn more about the things this sandwich is made of. Discover the ingredients which make this sandwich so popular in all parts of the world. Is it the bread or the filling inside? You will be surprised by the richness of the things stuffed inside this healthy sandwich.

What is Banh Mi made of?

It’s not just the stuffing or a change of seasoning that makes this sandwich different. Even the bread used to make the sandwich is Vietnamese in origin and differs from regular sandwich bread.

If you consider the other things like the meat filling, the vegetables, and their taste, that can turn into a whole new story. So, let’s find out about all the things which make banh mi a popular Vietnamese delicacy.

Bread: The loaves of Vietnamese Banh mi are available at special Asian bakeries located in various regions. That bread, in particular, is used for the banh mi sandwich. It has a different taste texture and complements well the inner filling. A baguette from Vietnam is more spongy, crumbly, and airy. It has a thin crust. This bread is sliced in half to make the sandwich.

It is more whitish in color and contains a thin crust.

The bread is made using two types of flour. One is wheat flour, and the other is rice flour. It’s okay if you do not find exactly the same bread, but you can opt for anything close to its appearance and taste. Or, simply bake a baguette or a bread with the same combination of two flours.

Instead of baking it to a golden-brown color, keep it white and pale in appearance. A good part of using a home-baked bread is that there can not be any doubt on the quality and freshness of the loaf.

Fillings: The other important thing about banh mi is the filling, which is a combination of both meat and vegetables. They both complement one another due to the similarity of their basic seasonings. They taste partially sweet as well sour and mildly tangy. Let’s, discuss all parts of the filling separately to get a hold of everything inside this sandwich:

The meat filling: Banh mi typically contains a single variety meat in its filling, which is seasoned, marinated and grilled before being added to the sandwich. But a combination of different meats like chicken with bacon, or beef with sausages, can also be used.

Usually, chicken banh mi is served, as it is easy and quick, but the options for filling this sandwich are endless. You can try using roasted pork belly, grilled pork, pork patties, sausages, sardines, beef kebabs, tofu, and even pork meatballs.

After selecting the appropriate meat, make sure it is sliced suitably to fit into the sandwich. Use a sharp knife to slice the meat and then mix it well with its marinade, which is usually a combination of juices, sauces, and dry spices. Dipped in the marinade, the meat is marinated enough to infuse a deep, rich taste. When completely marinated, the meat is later cooked.

There are several ways to tenderize it.

Grilling is applied in the traditional banh mi recipes, as it gives the meat a smoky taste. Baking, searing and pan grilling or roasting are some other choices which people opt as per their own convenience.

Pickled Vegetables: This Vietnamese delight is known for its novel pickled-vegetable flavor. You may find several sandwiches with grilled or roasted meat, but this is the only one which provides it in a combination of pickled vegetables. The Daikon radish is a must-pickle for this sandwich, along with carrots.

These two vegetables are first sliced lengthwise to a get long, French fries-like pieces, which are then dipped into a specially-prepared pickling liquid. Normally, pickling takes much time, but a few hours of soaking, or even soaking overnight, is enough to get that peculiar taste in the carrots and radishes for the sandwich.

After pickling the vegetables, make sure to drain them well and squeeze out all the excess liquid so that your sandwich filling does not get too watery.

Fresh Veggies: Other than the pickled vegetables, this sandwich also uses a combination of other fresh vegetables which are there to add more crunch and juicy tastes to the banh mi. Mostly it is just the English cucumber sliced into thick long pieces.

Such cucumber is free from seeds and does not have so much water, so it prevents the sandwich from turning too soggy. Besides cucumber, sliced onion rings, and tomatoes are also sometimes used as they both add more flavor and crunch to the sandwich.

Sandwich Spread: A layer of plain mayonnaise is spread inside the sandwiches to give a creamy and smooth taste to the banh mi. Moreover, the mayo balances the taste of the tangy grilled meat and the pickled vegetables. But that is not the only type of spread you can use in this sandwich. A chicken spread, tomato sauce, or mustard sauce can also be used in a small amount to enhance the taste as per your own liking.

Any earthy flavor to complement the fillings inside is best for the spread we choose for this sandwich. Whatever you use, never go overboard; otherwise, it will mask other essential flavors of this sandwich coming from the veggies and chicken.

A Banh mi recipe that can become your favorite

The banh mi recipe I am about to share today is my personal favorite as it has everything I like in a sandwich. In Vietnamese, it is commonly termed as Banh mi gà nướng. It takes a few minutes to assemble everything together if you have prepared the fillings already. This one is chicken banh mi.

We have talked about all the three basic elements which make up the banh mi and how each of them is important to make this sandwich super delicious. No matter which combination of meat and vegetable you use, the banh mi seasonings for this recipe remains the same to keep the authentic taste.

It has the fish sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar, garlic, ginger, and chili flakes to season both the chicken and the vegetables. This is the recipe I have tried myself a number of times at home and even shared it with few of my friends; they simply loved it.

Preparing Banh mi ingredients

For a chicken banh mi, the filling is prepared using chicken boneless slices. It is comparatively quick to make as the chicken does not take much time both in marination and the cooking. However, if it’s beef or pork banh mi, then you probably would need to increase the duration of marination or cooking longer than chicken for a tender and crispy texture.

This is the very same reason for why I prefer to have or serve chicken banh mi. But, besides chicken, pickled vegetables are the essential ingredients of this Vietnamese sandwich, and no matter which combination of meat you use for the filling, these vegetables and their method of preparation remains the same.

Here are all the necessary ingredients which are brought together in a definite proportion to make a delicious banh mi. It can serve as many as 6 individuals.

For the Chicken:

  • 1/2 cup fish sauce
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 chopped jalapeno
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/4 pounds chicken breasts boneless skinless

For the Pickled Veggies:

  • 1/2 cup hot water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2 carrots, sliced thin
  • 2 daikon radishes, sliced thin

For the Sandwiches:

  • 6 soft sub rolls
  • 1/3 cup mayo
  • 1/2 cucumber, sliced thin
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves, or mint
  • 1 sliced jalapeno for extra heat (optional)

Instructions

  1. Start by preparing the chicken and its marinade. Take a large flat bowl and add all the ingredients given above under the chicken section except the chicken itself. Mix these ingredients well to make a smooth and well-combined marinade. Once it is mixed, place the chicken breasts in the marinade and coat them well with this marinade by rubbing both the sides.
  2. Now cover this bowl for marination, then transfer the bowl to the refrigerator for one hour. The longer the marination, the better taste the chicken will have.
  3. Meanwhile prepare the pickled vegetables, dissolve sugar in hot water in the medium bowl by mixing well. Stir in red pepper flakes, vinegar, salt, carrots, and radishes. Toss these vegetables well, then cover their bowl with a plastic wrap. Now place this bowl in the refrigerator too, for about 30 minutes.
  4. During this time, prepare the grill and preheat to medium heat. Grease the grilling grates. Remove the marinating chicken from its marinade and place it in the grill. Let the chicken cook in the grill for 5 minutes per side. Transfer the grilled chicken to a plate and cover it with a loose tent of aluminum foil.
  5. Take the sub rolls and open them apart, place them in the grill with their insides downward. Let them toast for 2 minutes.
  6. Place the grilled sub rolls aside and drain the pickled vegetables. Dice the chicken into thin pieces on a working surface and set it aside.
  7. Take the two halves of each sub roll and spread a layer mayo on the inside. Place all the pickled vegetables, cucumber, cilantro and jalapenos in these rolls.
  8. Serve warm with your favorite sauce and dip. Enjoy.

Note: the chicken bahn mi is made specifically using boneless chicken slices. You can also make it using other forms of meat like sliced pork tenderloin or beef. Make sure to marinate the red meat for a longer duration before grilling it. This will give a soft and juicy texture after grilling.

Once the banh mi is ready to serve, slice the roll into two halves cross-sectionally to serve. Often, I add a layer of mustard sauce over the mayo layer inside the sub rolls, or you can simply drizzle the sauce on top. Adding extra fresh vegetables like sliced cucumbers or onion rings complements the taste and texture of the sandwiches well.

It is up to us to add them all or omit them entirely.

The basic recipe must have three ingredients, the sub roll, the chicken and the pickled vegetables. You can practically create more varieties by adding more of the side ingredients like cucumber, onions, cheese, sauce, etc.

To increase the caloric value of this sandwich, place a piece of sliced cheese inside the sandwich and either serve directly or broil the sandwich for 2 to 3 minutes to melt it down a bit. One time I also tried this sandwich with some mustard sauce and the hot sauce in between its layer. I also tend to experiment with the chicken marinade to enjoy a new taste every time.

Meal prep

Without meal-prepping, you cannot enjoy recipes like this one in your work routine. I have been facing this problem for a couple of years, and no matter how much I planned, I never really managed to cook anything good on the weekdays. Same happened with banh mi, though the recipe is simple enough, but with all that marination and pickling more planning had to be done.

I learned meal prepping techniques and started to spend extra hours on the weekends to keep the stuff ready. For chicken, I marinated it as per the given instructions in the recipe, and right after that, I freezed it in a Ziplock bag. Same technique I used for pickled vegetables.

Now whenever I want to enjoy a bite or two of banh mi, I grab a sub roll, slice the fresh cucumber and defrost the rest of the ingredients. The defrosted chicken can be then easily grilled and stuffed into the sandwich along with the pickled veggies.

That’s how simple things get.

And even if you don’t have time to set up a grill, you can always sear the chicken in a pan or a griddle pan to enjoy the same taste. It takes hardly 10 minutes to get it all done, which is a blessing when you are tired after a long day at work.

Do not try to preserve the marinated chicken and vegetables in the refrigerator, because at that temperature both the chicken and veggies may turn foul after one or two days. Deep freezing is always a safe choice when it comes to meal prep.

Varieties of Banh Mi

The types of Banh mi are many, and they all differ mainly because of the different types of meat filling used. Sometimes it is more than one meat. Which variety you would enjoy depends on the type of filling you like the most.

With every filling, the sandwich takes a different name in the Vietnamese language, which is easy to comprehend by the locals or natives, but for outsiders like us, we need a list of all the varieties with the type of filling they offer, so we would never mistake Banh mi bi for Banh mi Chay.

  1. Bahn mi bì: This is also commonly known as the shredded pork sandwich as it is made using pork shreds or pork skin fillings. This filling is flavored using fish sauce. First, you marinate the meat in the fish sauce marinade, then it is cooked well. Finally, that meat is shredded using a fork.
  1. Bánh mì chà bông: When the same sandwich is made using pork floss, it is named as Banh mi cha bong. This sandwich tastes less chunky than the others, as the pork floss is finer in texture. Pork floss is readily available in the market. It is made out of dry shredded pork. The floss is mostly used in various Asian cuisines including Vietnamese.
  1. Bánh mì xíu mại: When the smashed pork meatballs are added to the sandwich, it gives you Xiu mai. These pork meatballs are made using minced meat. Mix the minced pork with fish sauce, salt, pepper, garlic, ginger, and lemon juice, etc. or add other ingredients necessary then make small balls. Either bake or boil these balls, then mash gently to add to the sandwich.
  1. Bánh mì cá mòi: If you love banh mi with sardines in it, you have probably fallen for this particular variety of banh mi sandwich. Canned sardines with tomato sauce are a nice addition to your sandwich. Sardines canned with tomatoes taste delicious and tempting, and it is a perfect match for the Vietnamese sandwiches. It is suggested to drain the fish and add its saucy chunks to the sandwich filling along with pickled vegetables.
  1. Bánh mì xá xíu or bánh mì thịt nướng: When the pork, which is added to the sandwich, is first barbecued, then it gives you this variety of banh mi. The pork is glazed with a suitable marinade and then barbecued in the grill. Meatless pork steak would be needed for this purpose; a slice of pork sirloin will serve the purpose. Make sure to pound it with a mallet, marinate with a BBQ sauce and then cook.
  1. Bánh mì chả lụa or bánh mì giò lụa: When you make the sandwich with pork sausage, then it is cha Lua or Guo Lua. The sausages are usually first seared or boiled and then diced or sliced before adding to the sandwiches. Precooked pork sausages are available; just reheat them before slicing and directly stuff into the sandwich. If you are not seasoning the sausage, drizzle your favorite sauce over it after placing in the sandwich.
  1. Bánh mì gà nướng (grilled chicken sandwich): Not every banh mi is a chicken sandwich; it is this variety in particular which is made using the grilled chicken stuffing. The grill marks on the chicken and the strong smoky flavor are the true identity of this sandwich. You can also achieve that my grilling it in a griddle pan for your convenience. The important thing is to cook the chicken completely.
  1. Bánh mì chay (vegetarian sandwich): For vegetarians, the meat from the sandwich is replaced with tofu and seitan. This variety is not common on the streets as not many people prefer having these and most of them don’t even know about this variety. But it is a great option to avoid meat. Take the tofu, squeeze all of the liquid out and slice it lengthwise to get long pieces. Stir fry these pieces with the fish sauce and spices. Once it is done, add to the sandwich. Grilling is also a nice option when it comes to tofu.
  1. Bánh mì chả cá (fish patty sandwich): There is yet another other variety of banh mi which is cooked using fish meat. Yes, the sandwich is stuffed with a fish patty. The boneless fish fillet is minced with seasoning and cooked as a flat patty for the filling. White boneless fish is great for such sandwiches, like the cod. Remove the bones and put the fish in the food processor along with another seasoning to prepare the patty mixture. Press it into several small patties and sear them well before adding to the sandwich.
  1. Bánh mì trứng ốp-la: Instead of adding any meat at all, this variety of Banh mi is prepared using fried eggs which are paired with onions, butter, and soy sauce. It is famous as breakfast in Vietnamese cuisine.  Folded or rolled egg omelets with chopped vegetables and basic seasoning is a great way to stuff the sandwich. However, it is usually the egg scramble which is used for the filling.

Conclusion

Banh mi is a delight among all the street foods; luckily, you don’t always need to hit the road to find this pickled Vietnamese delicacy. Now you can have it in your own kitchen with the rich and easy traditional banh mi recipe. It makes excellent use of seasoned grilled chicken and pickled vegetables, both of them brought together in mayo-layered sub rolls.

Popular for its pickled vegetables, the roll can be served as the perfect snack meal or a carry-along meal. Try the delicious sandwiches and share the recipe with your loved ones. Your great feedback is what drives me to write more about the great food, and that’s what I await the most.

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis is a freelance writer and foodie based in Portland, California. Though raised on her mother's homestyle Italian cooking, she has spent most of the last five years traveling and immersing herself in other countries' cuisines. Her work have been published in various publications, both online and offline.

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