A friend is moving back to the mainland and will miss the Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwiches from a local take-out chain. She asked me to try to copy the pickled vegetables they use.
Armed with a handful of recipes scavenged from the vast internet, plus a container of the desired final product, I started experimenting. (If only high school chemistry had been this much fun…!)
The first attempt was clearly too watery, so I regretfully dumped the pickling liquid down the drain and began anew. With every change, I scribbled notes, another bit of this, double that, maybe some of this…and alternately took sips of the take-out pickling brine and my own work in progress.
I swallowed so much vinegar, I was choking and drinking water to clear my throat as much as my palate. When I had what I thought was a reasonable facsimile, I poured it over the shredded vegetables and moved on to the lemongrass tofu.
Since the tofu version of the sandwich contains simple slices of tofu fried in soy sauce, there wasn’t anything inspiring there to copy. Instead, I took a taste of my father’s lemongrass chicken version, spitting out the chicken after I had guessed at the flavoring components, and got to work.
First I sauteed the tofu in strips, so they would stay firm and be less likely to fall out of the sandwich with every bite. A simple sauce of onions, garlic, turmeric, and lemongrass gave it some character.
Since I had no stray French baguettes or croissants, the type of breads normally used, I substituted ciabatta, which has a similar chewy texture and is readily available at the local warehouse club. Besides, we always have some in our freezer for those days when I run out of food and want to make a quick meal.
The bread was sliced, spread with mayonnaise, then topped with some of the lemongrass tofu and lots of the pickles. I skipped the Chinese parsley/cilantro, because it smells like stink bugs to me. While I no longer spit every bit out that I run across in food, I do not choose to use it much in cooking, either.
I forgot to put in slices of cucumber, but adding or deleting it from the sandwich wouldn’t make or break it, I’m sure. The mild flavor wouldn’t be missed, and there is enough crunch in the pickles already.
The resulting sandwich was even better than the real thing, or so I thought. The pickles have a sweet-sour flavor with just a bit of kick from the hot sauce, and the crunch contrasts nicely with the sweet tenderness of the onions and meatiness of the tofu. While the ciabatta roll was not crusty like French baguettes are, the chewiness was similar, and I preferred the moister ciabatta.
My friend tried my version of bahn mi and gave it a thumbs up. Now she will be able to make it in Oregon, and I can make it here, whenever I want. Mission accomplished!
Vegan Bahn Mi, Vegetarian Sandwich
Note: for a vegan version, be sure to use a vegan bread and vegan mayonnaise
1 ciabbatta roll
2 slices cucumber
Lots of carrot-daikon pickle
Lemongrass tofu or sautéed tofu with soy sauce
Chinese parsley (cilantro)–optional
1 carrot, julienned or put through a mandolin
1 small daikon, put through a mandolin
1-1/2 cups water
1 TBS Sriracha chili sauce
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup plus 2 TBS sugar
1/2 cup vinegar
Place carrot and daikon in a mayonnaise jar or wide-mouthed quart jar. Heat water and remaining ingredients in a pan, stirring until sugar and salt have dissolved and the mixture has heated slightly. Pour over vegetables. Let stand one hour or more.
You can leave this in your refrigerator and use it in other kinds of sandwiches as well. Because it is a pickle, it will keep for a while, but discard it if the vegetables become mushy, or you get slime or other off taste, or you feel like it has gone bad. Trust your intuition.
1 block tofu (20 oz), cut into strips
2 TBS oil
3 TBS oil
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried turmeric
1/2 cup water
Fry tofu strips in 2 TBS oil until brown and firm. Remove from pan.
Fry onion in 3 TBS oil until soft. Add garlic, lemongrass, salt, and turmeric. Saute 1 minute, stirring often. Do not burn garlic.
Add water and tofu. Cook, stirring often, until liquid is gone, about 3-5 minutes.
To assemble the sandwich:
Cut ciabatta in half to make 2 thin slices. Spread one side with mayonnaise. Place some lemongrass tofu on it, cucumber, parsley if desired, and a generous amount of carrot and daikon pickles.