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How I Wrote an Entire Book on Banh Mi

My career as a cookbook author is one that my family and friends are proud of but also slightly mystified by, especially with regard to my latest project. “You have to work so hard to come up with ideas and then get people to pay you for them. It is amazing that you did this,” my 80-year-old mom marveled. I’d just handed her a copy of "The Banh Mi Handbook", released in July by Ten Speed Press. Mom wasn’t damning me with faint praise. She was surprised at what I’d produced.

“Isn’t your new book going to be like a pamphlet?” a friend repeatedly asked during the year or so that it took me to write the book. He’s extremely bright and knowledgeable about food but couldn’t figure out how I planned to pull off a whole cookbook devoted to banh mi.

Like many others, he assumed that banh mi basically boiled down to the dac biet (“DACK bee-yet”) special combo sandwich involving a crisp baguette filled with liver pate and thin slices of Viet-style cold cuts (usually mortadella-like sausage, stained glass-like headcheese, and pinkish garlicky pork), pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber, cilantro and chile. What else would I have to share aside from the limited number of dac biet derivatives seen at many Vietnamese delis where the sandwiches are sold?

My friend’s skepticism didn’t insult me as much as it flummoxed me: I never thought that I could not write a whole book on banh mi. If there are books on hamburgers, why not banh mi? I’d eaten the signature Vietnamese sandwich since childhood and tinkered with enough of them to know that they could go in many directions. Plus, I noticed that a new generation of Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese chefs, cafes and restaurants were offering banh mi riffs as well as excellent traditional ones too.

Daring banh mi seemed to be in many places. In Portland, Oregon, a banh mi shop opened on the same block as a McDonald’s; Lardo, the city’s super popular sandwich shop, presented banh mi on a ciabatta roll and it worked just as well as baguette. At Baoguette in Manhattan, a sloppy Joe-style banh mi contained pickled papaya. A handful of vendors in Vietnam were offering Turkish-German-Viet doner kebab banh mi.

Steamed Chinese buns stuffed with banh mi filling and old-school canned sardine banh mi were among the options at Saigon Sisters in Chicago. In a 2011 listing of the best new sandwiches in America, "Huffington Post" included Seattle’s Baguette Box and its new wave “drunken chicken” banh mi filled with a General Tso-ish chicken. In Los Angeles at Good Girl Dinette, chef/restaurateur Diep Tran concocted a cilantro Maggi mayonnaise for her banh mi and fries. Meanwhile, the iconic dac biet continued to expand its fan base beyond people of Viet heritage.

Surveying the situation, I wondered this: Could I tell the story and inspire the future of Vietnamese food in America via banh mi? Sandwiches are universal and easy for people to wrap their heads around. Since banh mi’s popularity was on the rise, there was an opportunity for nudging Vietnamese food from its ethnic margin closer to the mainstream center.

To that end, I planned the book so that the chapters and recipes helped readers understand the arc of Vietnamese food. "The Banh Mi Handbook" opens with a brief history of the sandwich, from its hyphenated Southeast Asian roots as an amalgam of native, foreign, and colonial ideas to being part of today’s global food culture. Then the book swiftly moves into practical tips for gathering the ingredients and building fabulous banh mi. The bulk of the book contains a diverse recipe collection that includes classics and modern condiments, pickles, and fillings.

There’s authenticity but also tons of riffs and encouragement to tweak. Cultural and culinary tidbits were slipped into the recipes to help cooks build a foundation for understanding Vietnamese foodways. I also included tips that recipe testers suggested too. (I don’t work in a vacuum and value their feedback; recipes are developed by me and tested by others.)

My earlier cookbooks were landmarks and a little serious, requiring a lot of research. The banh mi book was written with just as much care but is more fun (it’s a sandwich!), uses ingredients cooks can find at supermarkets, and the recipes are deliciously doable. My publisher and I decided to make the book’s shape to match that of the sandwich. The iPad-like smallish size makes it portable but I also tucked cooking tips into sidebars and sections called “Notes.”

Like pho noodle soup, banh mi is customizable and personal. There’s a banh mi for every person and moment. To echo that notion, I made sure to offer recipes for meaty as well as vegetarian and vegan cooks. Banh mi for the gluten-free? Yes, make banh mi lettuce wraps. How about eggless mayonnaise? I spent a week fooling around in my kitchen to make that happen. Can’t find or dislike daikon for the pickle? Use a substitute or select a different pickle among the handful of pickle recipes, which I developed with flavors and textures that work well in banh mi. Downloadable, sample content and recipes are available at Scribn.com: http://bit.ly/1r6jlzQ

Many people started cooking from "The Banh Mi Handbook" soon after they got it. Some admitted to reading it in bed. Those are mighty high compliments to an author. I set out to show that banh mi is and can be a lot more than what we think it is. The book is 132 pages long with about 55 recipes, much more substantial than a pamphlet.

The Banh Mi Handbook Proofs

photo credit: Andrea Nguyen

Part of the cookbook writing process is reviewing and marking up the designed proofs of the book. I always us a Magic Rub eraser. We went through many rounds of this to polish things before the book went to print.

Banh Mi Dac Biet

photo credit: Paige Green

Is this all that banh mi is? For some yes, but it doesn't have to be. We made this one completely from recipes in the book for the photoshoot.

Daring Banh Mi in America

photo credit: Andrea Nguyen

Downtown Portland, Oregon. Me holding a Baoguette sloppy Joe-style sandwich on the street in Manhattan.

Doner Kebab Banh Mi in Saigon

photo credit: Andrea Nguyen

A great late night snack that embodies the evolution of Viet food. (Note the Hellman's mayo.)

Banh Mi Handbook Recipe Development

photo credit: Andrea Nguyen

A snippet of what I developed and refined for the book: banh mi buns, cilantro Maggi mayo, and a drunken chicken banh mi.

Final Book Cover

photo credit: Paige Green

Given the book's overall size, the Hanoi grilled chicken banh mi on the cover is true to size.

Banh Mi Handbook Range of Images

photo credit: Paige Green (2), Elizabeth Stromberg (1)

Along with vivid food photography by Paige Green there are modern graphics created by Elizabeth Stromberg, the book designer whose worked with me for years. I contributed a couple of line drawings to illustrate techniques. Sandwiches are fun and for everyone.

If you have questions or comments about banh mi, "The Banh Mi Handbook," Vietnamese food, or cookbook writing, don’t hold back. Let’s discuss.

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  1. Oh goody!!! You know how much I already love this book! I know everyone's looking forward to picking your brain :) And, hey, CHs, I'd never made ANY bread before making her banh mi rolls...and they turned out great! Welcome back to CH, Andrea!

    2 Replies
    1. re: c oliver

      Delighted that you're on the banh mi band wagon. And making the bread too! Damn, woman. You're a banh mi master.

      1. re: Andrea Nguyen

        HAHAHA! re master but you demystify things so beautifully. May have to make those rolls again. Finally found my vitamin C tabs that had gone missing :)

    2. Excellent use of the new photo format and insight into "inviting professional voices.."

      Andrea, love your work!! I have the tofu and dumpling books and they are much loved and used. At home, we make banh mi type sandwiches using ciabatta so I'm happy to read it is a "thing."

      1 Reply
      1. re: tcamp

        Thank you. I'd been hesitant to weigh in the past but figured that since CHs have discussed my work in the past, this was a nice way to directly engage cooks and readers.

        Go banh mi! August is National Sandwich Month in the U.S.

      2. An excellent intro to a lovely book. Thanks, Ms. Nguyen!

        Besides the standard fillings my other personal favourites (in Vietnam and Vancouver, Canada) are headcheese*, tinned sardines, meatballs, pâté. Also this filling which is similar to what a restaurant** in Vancouver called 'homemade ham'. What is this exactly, do you know?

        I even brought pâté and 'jambon' back to Europe in a Coleman cooler filled with ice cubes! (was before 9/11)

        *(cooked in an pig's stomach and if I remember correctly it is called 'jambon' in Vietnam. Is this not headcheese?)

        ** (restaurant in Vancouver: https://www.aupetitcafe.com/authentic...)

        7 Replies
        1. re: Pata_Negra

          Vietnamese "ham" can refer to two things:

          1)Pork leg or shank that's been cooked with garlic and 5-spice; it often sports a pinkish rind from food coloring. Some cooks use pork belly. It's known as thit banh mi (literally meat for banh mi).

          2) A silky sausage that's akin to mortadella in fine texture. In Vietnamese, that's called gio lua or cha lua. The color is buff/off-white.

          Sometimes, I find actual super thin slices of canned ham in banh mi too. It's not fancy French jambon.

          I looked at the menu you pointed to and it's hard to tell. What color is that "ham"?

          1. re: Andrea Nguyen

            re ham: It's red. I thought it was pork belly. Must have been slow cooked.

            I'm familiar with 'Cha Lua'. The headcheese might be 'Gio Thu'. That is it.

            1. re: Pata_Negra

              Tee hee. The "ham" can be boiled. My first recipe for it is in "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen" (page p. 166, thit banh mi o); the cut used is shank, seasoned and rolled up, then baked in the oven. The recipe comes from my mom's dear friend. For "The Banh Mi Handbook" I simplified things with tenderloin but kept the seasonings bold and boiled it; the result impressed and satisfied my parents.

              Headcheese is called "gio thu" in Vietnamese. You're a banh mi aficionado, @Pata_negra!

              Here's a recipe reference shot from when I worked on the book: liver pate, garlicky pork tenderloin (my "ham"), headcheese, and gio lua silky sausage (pork and beef versions). You can make gio lua with chicken too.

               
              1. re: Andrea Nguyen

                Yes, it's in the middle of the pic!!! Yum!

                I made pseudo Banh Mi recently, actually. No Vietnamese headcheese, unfortunately. (photos in my profile)

                1. re: Pata_Negra

                  You don't need headcheese in banh mi for the sandwich to be Vietnamese. There are countless version of banh mi. Have no shame.

                  I recently posted photos of about 90% of the recipes in The Banh Mi Handbook. You can see the range at Vietworldkitchen.com, my blog: http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/...

                2. re: Andrea Nguyen

                  Your book looks great, Andrea, congrats! I can totally see devoting a volume to banh mi. My favourite thing in banh mi is nem nuong, variously referred to as pork sausage or meatball, though I rather think of it as a patty since that's how it mostly turns up here. I've toyed with making my own at home but it's so easy and inexpensive to get the best commercially here in Vancouver that I've never got around to it.

                  I buy the frozen patties from Kim Chau deli (which supplies many of the Vietnamese restos in town) and use them as burgers in the summer. Thaw, toss on the grill, put them on a nice potato roll/good quality hamburger bun with the condiments of your choice and voila, yet another riff on banh mi.

                  1. re: grayelf

                    Nem nuong refers to a sausage, patty or meatball of ground meat. Nothing wrong with your interpretation.

                    Yes, I have similar ideas in the book so you're in line. But make your own to tinker and control flavors.

          2. Welcome!

            I am attaching a link to our pre-order thread so anyone can find both discussions easily.

            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9282...

            1 Reply
            1. re: smtucker

              I should have known that Chowhounders were already on top of things! Thanks for the link. I'm quite flattered.

            2. Very cool. Thank you for posting!

              1 Reply