20 Aug / The Banh Mi Handbook Giveaway and a Chat with Author Andrea Nguyen
Cookbook author and teacher Andrea Nguyen has done it again! I just received a complimentary copy of Andrea’s fourth book in eight years, The Banh Mi Handbook—Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches, and it’s set to launch another culinary revolution.
Banh mi has its roots in the French snack of pâté and bread. After a few tweaks here and there to cater to local tastes, it soon became widespread among Vietnamese street vendors. The crisp baguette, succulent fillings, and condiments are legacies of French and Chinese colonialism; whereas the tangy daikon and carrot pickles, chile slices, cucumber strips, and cilantro sprigs reflect the Viet love for bright flavors and fresh vegetables. Cheap and tasty, they’re irresistible! Not surprisingly, banh mi love is all around us–available at gourmet delis, food trucks, even Whole Foods Markets.
With more than 50 recipes–including homemade bread rolls, pickles, and both meat and vegetarian fillings– The Banh Mi Handbook is a definitive guide to making your perfect Vietnamese sandwich. You won’t be disappointed with Andrea’s easy-to-follow recipes for Crispy Drunken Chicken, Shrimp in Caramel Sauce, Grilled Lemongrass Pork, Beef and Curry Sliders, and Coconut Curry Tofu.
Andrea was kind enough to share some thoughts with Pickles and Tea readers. In our Q+A, we chat about the banh mi evolution, school lunches, and finding the best banh mi vendors. Be sure to enter our giveaway for a chance to win a copy of The Banh Mi Handbook!
1. After Asian Tofu and Asian Dumplings, The Banh Mi Handbook was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting perhaps Asian Noodles or Asian Vegetables, so why banh mi?
Each one of my books is about a topic that I love and deeply care about. My first-born was Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, published in 2006. I wanted to circle back to Viet foodways but via one dish: the banh mi sandwich.
Could I encourage more people to make Viet flavors part of their regular rotation? Hopefully yes. Everyone can wrap their head around a sandwich. It’s an accessible, flexible food. Given banh mi’s rising popularity, there was an opportunity for nudging from its ethnic margin toward the mainstream center. Banh mi started out and always will be a hyphenated sandwich. I wanted to highlight that.
2. You write in your book that you assembled banh mis for your school lunches. Did you ever get teased, or were you self-conscious, for having a school lunch that was different from your classmates? Did you care?
For a simple banh mi school lunch, I’d pack liverwurst on sliced white bread. By noon, it tended to be a little stinky so I’d eat it quickly. It was good. Growing up, I knew that my family made and ate food that was different from that of our neighbors. My brother was regularly hacking off a banana leaf from a tree in the front yard so my mom could whip something up. Some mornings she’d char a whole pork leg in the fireplace for a mock dog stew, an old school northern Viet favorite.
We lived in a Southern California beach town called San Clemente. Years later, after my first book came out, one of my childhood friends said he never knew that I had such a food life. That was a different era and we were refugee immigrants trying to fit in.
3. How have the banh mis of your childhood changed and how do you feel about that?
There’s a much broader range of banh mi these days. Decades ago you went to buy one and the options were limited and you could only buy them at delis in Little Saigon enclaves. Nowadays, there is banh mi in unexpected places — food trucks, non-Asian restaurants, gastropubs, for example. Yum! Foods, the parent company of Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, is testing a banh mi concept. People are also making banh mi at home like they would a hamburger.
Banh mi has gone mainstream relatively quickly. What’s cool is that people are also asking what’s authentic and what is not when it comes to banh mi. What makes banh mi different from a sub or hero? The only way to know is to craft a lot of them yourself.
4. Your book includes unconventional fillings such as Portobello mushrooms and herbed salmon cakes, and several recipes are modern takes on traditional ingredients and fillings. Obviously, you aren’t bothered by ingredients or foods that aren’t deemed “authentic.” Can you talk a little about that?
When applied to food, authenticity is a slippery, tricky thing because food evolves and changes at the hands of its maker. What’s important is keeping to the spirit and foundation of banh mi. I’ve had banh mi in Vietnam and elsewhere. At core, it’s a customizable and highly personal thing. It’s a have-it-your-way food. When you order one from a street vendor, you can dictate what you want in it, the filling etc. There isn’t one kind of banh mi like there isn’t one kind of pizza.
5. What’s your favorite combination of fillings in a banh mi?
I have such a soft spot for the dac biet special. It’s such a weird combination of textures and flavors – pate, headcheese, garlicky pork shank and silky smooth mortadella-like sausage. Then all the pickles and other produce. I don’t know who thought of it first but it works brilliantly.
6. What tips can you give for making banh mi at home?
Keep one Viet pickle in the fridge and you can make banh mi in a snap. I have several options in the book, not just daikon and carrot. Many people contend that the bread is the most important element but that’s not true. You just need bread with a crisp shell and slightly cottony crumb. A Mexican bolillo works just as well as a supermarket ‘French’ bread or delicate ciabatta. Sliced bread works too. Banh mi is not precious food. It’s a tasty sandwich.
7. When I go to a banh mi vendor, whether in the U.S. or when I was in Vietnam, I usually go for the safe choices–bbq pork, meatballs, hardly ever pâté or cold cuts–because I’m not sure what I’m going get. What advice can you give banh mi seekers on what to look for in a vendor, whether in Vietnam or in a Little Saigon. Do you have favorite places to go here in the U.S.?
All the elements that go into the banh mi should look fresh. When I’m in Vietnam, street vendors who sell one or two kinds of sandwiches tend to be reliable because they’re focused. If there’s a meat or eggs that they’re cooking up on the spot, that’s a good clue.
Regardless of location, a banh mi vendor or shop with higher prices tends to craft higher-quality sandwiches. Outside of sourcing banh mi from my home kitchen, I look for them when I’m out and about. It’s a quick and portable snack. I don’t have loyalty to any particular place. I’m more or less an equal opportunity eater.
We are giving away 1 (one) copy of The Banh Mi Handbook. To enter, please sign up for the Pickles and Tea mailing list at the bottom of the page and leave a comment below with your favorite sandwich filling (Vietnamese or not) and your email address.
The last day to enter is Friday, August 29 and I’m afraid we can only ship to U.S. and Canadian addresses. Good luck!
Disclosure: As research for this interview, I was given a complimentary copy of The Banh Mi Handbook. Regardless, I think it’s a great cookbook and that’s why I’m featuring it.