The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches by Andrea Nguyen provides a foundation for making classic versions of banh mi as well as a source of inspiration for unique banh mi interpretations. It’s divided into recipes for the banh mi pantry, bread, condiments, main fillings which comprise the vast majority of the book. Recipes in the fillings ranging from cold cuts, pork and beef, seafood, and vegetarian fillings. The last section has alternative interpretations, encouraging experimental versions of bánh mì. It’s a relatively short book at 125 pages, but is packed with over 50 recipes.
As one of America’s foremost experts on Vietnamese cuisine, Nguyen has an introductory banh mi 101 section on the history of banh mi and sprinkles enjoyable personal tales, such as “human meat banh mi” among the recipes. While it covers the classic recipes for banh mi thit nguoi and banh mi thit nuong, the majority of the book’s recipes are nontraditional recipes, think beef donner kabobs, panko crusted talipia, caramelized shrimp, and coconut curry tofu. Similarly the recipes for traditional condiments such as pickles, pate, and mayo are covered, but again Nguyen adds other interesting twists such as snow pea and lemongrass pickle and edamame pate. Just as banh mi’s popularity has extended well beyond small enclaves of Vietnamese-American communities and has been adopted into restaurant menus (even the parent company of taco bell and KFC is planning a banh mi shop) , Nguyen implores cooks to embrace it and expand banh mi’s boundaries, and to ”love it for what it is: a super tasty sandwich.”
As Andrea Nguyen recounts in her book, years of sleuthing and month’s of bread baking was spent trying to replicate the Vietnamese baguettes found commonly in Vietnam. While we’ve eaten many good banh mi here in America, we’ve yet to eat a banh mi baguette as good as in Vietnam. Why is the crispy baguette crust that shatters when bitten and the airy crumb so common to Vietnamese baguettes, yet so elusive and difficult to replicate here in America? One prevailing notion on why Vietnamese baguettes are so unique was that it contained rice flour.
For years, that’s what we thought as well—since that’s what we read on the internet, it must be true right? As Nguyen stated, most Vietnamese family’s do not bake because owning an oven was uncommon back in the day. So we couldn’t turn to anyone in our family for help. However two years ago on a trip to Vietnam, not only did we eat more than our share of amazing banh mi, we spent a good amount of time researching this question and visiting many lo banh mi, baguette bakeries. Eight years prior, there was a bakery near my grandmothers house that was basically a converted living room. It had a traditional coal brick oven and made fresh baguettes all throughout the day. Sadly when we went to look for it this time around, they had moved and changed shop. Nowadays, there are laws against coal brick ovens, a fire hazard we were told, and all the small bakeries we visited had modern electric steam ovens. Thank goodness modernization hasn’t industrialized the process and gotten rid of small mom and pop bakeries. We discovered one mom and pop bakery owner, Mr. Hung, who took us into his bakery to show us an exclusive behind the scenes look. In the middle of bustling district 5, Cho lon, Mr. Hung’s bakery churns out the most perfect Vietnamese baguettes of our dreams nearly 24 hrs a day. His bread is distributed in large bamboo baskets all over Saigon on the back of mopeds and customers come buying by the bagful, clutching to them like gold as they sped away on their mopeds. Mr. Hung was flabbergasted as to why two Viet kieu would spend almost an entire day of their vacation in his bakery. He explained there was no secret ingredient and definitely no rice flour. It’s just: wheat flour, fresh yeast, water, butter, salt, sugar, and a small amount of commercial bread conditioner and Vitamin C. He also said that there’s no one master recipe–he’s been doing this for so long, he just knows the ratios and what ingredients to adjust depending on the temperature and humidity of the day. Watch the video below as we document the entire process from start to finish:
All ingredients are mixed, dough divided equally, and then rolled into shape right away. The dexterity and speed of the bakers were simply amazing. We saw them literally roll about 100 baguettes in a matter of minutes. It’s starts by flattening the dough with the heels of your palm, then lifting the disk of dough and slapping it on the counter which elongates them to an oval shape. It’s then rolled into a final baguette form. They are immediately placed in covered proofing boxes and allowed to rise in the hot humidity of Saigon for about 3 hours, by which time they have more than doubled in size.
Finally, they are slashed and baked in a steam oven. Mr. Hung explains how the cracks instantly develops on the crust after it comes out of the oven and that the characteristic airy crumb is called khong ruot (literally means no guts) to describe Vietnamese style baguettes vs. more dense compact crumb of western style baguettes. After our No Reservations/Anthony Bourdain like adventure, we left Mr. Hung’s bakery convinced more than ever that rice flour was not what made Vietnamese baguettes unique. Admittedly, we were somewhat disappointed that we didn’t discover some secret ingredient, but then again, it all made sense. Why would the French, masters of baguettes, teach Vietnamese bakers to incorporate rice flour? The Vietnamese bakers are basically using a basic French baguette recipe in Vietnam. Perhaps its just the unique baking environment of Vietnam, the hot humidity and extended proofing that makes that incredibly airy crumb and crispy crust. Nguyen’s recipe for banh mi baguettes also reflects the fact that rice flour is not part of the recipe though it differs slightly from Mr. Hung’s technique. We’ve yet to try it, but we’re glad she has also dispelled the notion of rice flour as the secret to the Vietnamese baguette.
Reading The Banh Mi Handbook and it’s gorgeous photos did make us crave some banh mi and we were glad to see a recipe for five spice barbecue pork, thit xa xiu, was included. We love the sweet and sticky texture of xa xiu as it complements the sour pickles and richness of mayo and pate so well. It’s one of our favorite banh mi fillings. The flavors of the recipe are spot on and really like how all recipes has a “notes” section that gives tips on how it can be made into a banh mi as well as other possible variations such as a xa xiu banh mi steam bun. The only thing we would suggest differently is to reserve more of the marinade for glazing as there were plenty of marinade left and we like to slather it on during grilling.
Thit Xa Xiu 5-Spice Barbecue Pork
Yield: 6 sandwiches
Prep Time: 45 minutes plus 1-24 hrs marinating
1.5 lbs pork shoulder/butt
2 cloves garlic minced and mashed
1/2 ts five spice powder
1 ts sugar
2 ts toasted sesame oil
1.5 tbs soy sauce
2 tbs ketchup
2 tbs honey
3 tbs hoisin sauce
canola oil, for grilling
Cut pork into 3 chunky strips about 2 inches thick and 6 inches long. Set aside.
In large bowl, combine the garlic, five spice powder, sugar, sesame oil, soy sauce, ketchup, and hoisin. Reserve 2 tbs of marinade for brushing.
Add the pork to the marinade and coat well. Marinate for 1 to 24 hrs, turning 2-3 times.
To grill the pork, set grill to medium. Lightly oil grates and cook for 16-20 minutes turing frequenly. During the last 5 minutes, baste with reserved marinade. Cool on coolng rack. If roasting, preheat oven to 475 and roastin top third of oven for 30-35 minutes. Baste with marinade every 10 minutes. Regardless of cooking method, the xa xiu should have a glazed look with charred exterior and internal temperature of 145F. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before slicing into banh mi.
If you’re a fan of bánh mì, The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches is for you. It’s well thought out, organized in a clear and logical manner, and contains lots of recipes and photos to stimulute your appetite and desire to recreate delicious classic banh mi or crazy new versions at home. If you are one of first 500 to preorder, you can get some free goodies including a temporary tatto, signed book plate, and from Redboat fish sauce salt as well!