Beautiful Vietnam » Guide
Banh mi: A sandwich from Vietnam with layers of flavour
  • | The Post-Standard | April 26, 2010 01:20 PM

Take a bite into one of Dung Vu's banh mi sandwiches, and then try to identify all the tastes and textures.

It's harder than you might think.

There's the bread, obviously, crusty on the outside, chewy inside. There's a clear and strong aroma of fresh cilantro, and the lingering spice from red chiles.

Banh mi sandwiches, like this one from Ky Duyen Cafe in Syracuse, include several layers of meat, vegetables and condiments. Photo: John Berry / The Post-Standard.

But what's that in between? Butter? Pork? Cucumber?

Yes, but that's still probably only half of the flavors packed into a sandwich that is the size and shape of a small football.

Banh mi (pronounced bunn mee) is a hugely popular sandwich in Vu's homeland of Vietnam, where vendors sell it from street carts in both cities and rural areas.

At Vu's Ky Duyen Cafe, at the corner of North Salina and Butternut streets, banh mi is the only food on the menu. They also serve rich and sweet Vietnamese coffee for morning and midday customers.

And Ky Duyen seems to be one of the few places in Upstate New York for members of the Vietnamese community to satisfy their craving for a freshly made banh mi. (Prepackaged banh mi are available at some Asian food stores).

"People come on weekends from Rochester, or Albany, and pick up 40 or 50 to take back," said Vu's son-in-law, Darren Huynh. "They can't get them anywhere else."

To understand that devotion, you need to understand the complexity of the sandwich.

Here's how writer Julia Moskin described banh mi in a New York Times story in 2009:

"If you haven't tried a classic banh mi, imagine all the cool, salty, crunchy, moist and hot contrasts of a really great bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich," Moskin wrote. "Then add a funky undertone of pork liver and fermented anchovy, a gust of fresh coriander and screaming top notes of spice, sweetness and tang."

While there are differences among banh mi sandwiches, that description more or less sums up Vu's version, as she serves it here in Syracuse.

So let's deconstruct Vu's banh mi, keeping in mind that she sells all this for just $3.50.

The bread.
The importance of the bread is clear from the name. Banh means bread, and mi means wheat. (When Huynh describes the sandwich in English, he calls it "the bread.")

Banh mi sandwiches combine traditional Vietnamese cuisine with that of France, which once held that part of Southeast Asia as a colony. The traditional banh mi bread is a long, slender, crusty French baguette.

In Syracuse, Vu substitutes a shorter, wider -- but still crusty -- Italian bread.

Butter/mayonnaise. Vu calls it a special butter. It's mixed with oil and egg yolks, so it becomes a creamy yellow dressing. (Many banh mi recipes call for mayonnaise, which is an egg-based dressing).

Vu describes the butter as one of the two essential ingredients to banh mi.

Pork liver pate. This is Vu's other essential. Almost all versions of banh mi contain pate, a spreadable (paste) version of liver. It's spread on the bread to give the sandwich a deep, rich layer of taste, sort of like the bass notes in a song.

Pork and sausage. Vu's banh mi contains shredded or minced meat taken from a barbecued leg of pork.

Then there's a thin white strip of meat, which is cut from a pork sausage roll called cha lua, seasoned in anchovy paste and fish sauce.

Together, these provide the meaty heart of the banh mi. Yet in proportion to the rest of the ingredients, they're not dominant, as the meat might be in most American sandwiches. They're just in there among the many layers.

Pickled vegetables. Vu uses the traditional combination of shredded carrots and daikon (an Asian radish) in a vinegary combination called do chua.

This combination gives the banh mi some needed texture and acts as a condiment to give it some tang.

Cucumber. These are sliced to add some cooling crunch.

Chiles. Vu makes a sauce of red bird's eye chiles, also known as Thai chiles, or ot hiem in Vietnam. The peppers are extremely hot, and the chile sauce adds a nice, lingering kick to the banh mi.

Cilantro. Fresh and fragrant, cilantro (whose seed is the spice coriander) offers a prevailing herbal aroma that accompanies every bite.

When you get a fresh banh mi, the meat is heated, while the veggies, cucumber and herbs are cool. That just adds to the remarkable contrast in the sandwich.

Vu, 52, arrived in Syracuse in 2003. She came here from her home in Bao Ria Vung Tau, near Vietnam's coast, because her brother and sister were already here.

Her sister, Thom, who taught her how to make banh mi, ran the Ky Duyen Cafe before her death in 2007. (Ky Duyen means random chemistry.)

Now Vu carries on the tradition. She speaks little English but generally has friends or relatives around to help.

Huynh, who runs a nail salon in Auburn, said Vu is content to concentrate on banh mi but could expand the menu if business picks up.

Banh mi works as a solo food item because people eat it for breakfast or lunch, Huynh said.

"It's a whole meal in there," he said. "You don't want anything else."

Dung Vu keeps some of her banh mi technique secret. Here's a variation:

Banh Mi Sandwich


1 small baguette roll or a 7-inch section cut from a regular-length baguette, purchased or homemade

Real (whole-egg) mayonnaise, store-bought or homemade
Maggi seasoning sauce or soy sauce
Choice of boldly flavored meat or tofu, sliced and at room temperature
3 or 4 thin, seeded cucumber strips, pickling or English variety preferred
2 or 3 cilantro sprigs, roughly chopped
3 or 4 thin jalapeno pepper slices
Daikon and carrot pickle (do chua), see separate recipe

Slit the bread lengthwise, then use your fingers or a bread knife to hollow out the insides, making a trough in both halves. Discard the insides or save it for another use, such as bread crumbs. If necessary, crisp up the bread in a toaster oven preheated to 325 degrees, and then let it cool for a minute before proceeding.
Generously spread the inside with mayonnaise. Drizzle in some Maggi seasoning sauce or soy sauce. Start from the bottom portion of bread to layer in the remaining ingredients. (As with all sandwiches, you'll eventually develop an order for layering the filling so as to maximize the interaction between flavors and textures.) Close the sandwich, then cut it in half crosswise for easy eating.

Daikon and Carrot Pickle (Do Chua)

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 pound daikon (an Asian radish), each no larger than 2 inches in diameter, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons plus ½ cup sugar
1 ¼ cups distilled white vinegar
1 cup lukewarm water

Place the carrot and daikon in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Use your hands to knead the vegetables for about 3 minutes, expelling the water from them. They will soften, and liquid will pool at the bottom of the bowl. Stop kneading when you can bend a piece of daikon so that the ends touch but the daikon does not break. The vegetables should have lost about ¼ of their volume. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water, then press gently to expel extra water. Return the vegetables to the bowl if you plan to eat them soon, or transfer them to a 1-quart jar for longer storage.
To make the brine, in a bowl, combine the ½ cup sugar, the vinegar and the water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the vegetables. The brine should cover the vegetables. Let the vegetables marinate in the brine for at least 1 hour before eating. They will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks. Makes about 3 cups