Vietnamese food has been on my mind a bit lately due to the recent opening of a great new vegan restaurant in the 9th arrondissement, La Palanche d’Âulac. I had lunch there a couple weeks ago and fell in love! Scrumptious food (noodles, egg rolls, soups, coconut desserts) and a dining room that manages to be both spacious and cozy at the same time. And it is of course always very nice to be able to choose what actually appeals to you on the menu of an Asian restaurant rather than having to select from only two or three items that happen not to contain oyster sauce. Paris did already have a vegan Vietnamese restaurant, Vietnam in Paris, but for some reason it didn’t win me over like this new place has. If you live in Paris or will be visiting, definitely put La Palanche d’Âulac on your list.
So today I thought I would bring you an easy but delicious Vietnamese recipe that also happens to have a French connection. As you may already be aware, Vietnam is a former French colony—from the late 19th century to 1945, together with what is now Cambodia and Laos, it formed French Indochina. During this time, the colonizers introduced bread to the region and this fusion sandwich featuring traditional Asian ingredients was eventually born. The name bánh mì literally means “wheat cake” and so is the Vietnamese word for bread, as I understand it, but outside of Vietnam, the term is used to refer to this iconic and so very delicious sandwich.
If you have a Vietnamese or general Asian grocery store in your area, you can try looking for Vietnamese baguettes, which are made with added rice flour and so differ a bit from the firmer, crustier traditional French baguettes. But any baguette-shaped bread will work. A must for this recipe is the toasted sesame oil—be sure not to buy untoasted sesame oil by mistake because it’s key to this sandwich’s yumminess.
Since the various components of this sandwich can easily be marinated ahead of time, it’s ideal for bringing to a picnic or a day of hiking. Just assemble it shortly before leaving to ensure that the bread doesn’t get too soggy (you may also want to bring the “sauce” or soy-sesame marinade along in a separate container to add just before serving).
Tofu bánh mì
Makes two sandwiches
- 7 oz (200 g) firm tofu
- 1 long baguette or 2 submarine sandwich type buns
- 1/2 cup (50 g) carrot, shredded/grated
- 1/2 cup (75 g) cucumber, sliced thinly and chopped into quarters
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) rice vinegar
- 1 green onion/scallion, chopped into rounds
- small bunch fresh cilantro (or coriander in UK English)
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) soy sauce or tamari sauce
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) toasted sesame oil (be sure it’s the toasted kind)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon Sriracha or other hot sauce
- a few tablespoonfuls vegan mayonnaise
- 1 or 2 limes
The first thing you’ll want to do is get your carrot and cucumber marinating. Shred or grate the carrot and chop the cucumber into small pieces. Place in a smallish bowl and add 1/4 cup (60 ml) rice vinegar. Stir the veggies a bit with a fork to make sure they’re evenly covered by the vinegar. Set aside and take note of the time, as this should marinate for about an hour (longer is okay too).
Next you’ll be preparing the tofu for its marinade.
With a non-serrated knife, chop the tofu into slices as shown. Be careful not to cut overly thin slices as the tofu could break apart. Each sandwich will get three or four of these slices.
In a non-stick pan over low heat and without any oil (this makes it firmer — also there will be plenty of oil in the marinade!), brown the tofu about five minutes on each side until golden as shown and slightly crispy.
While you’re waiting for the tofu to brown, prepare the tofu marinade. Combine the soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and hot sauce, and then stir in the two minced garlic cloves.
As soon as the tofu is done browning, transfer it to the soy sauce and sesame oil marinade and toss a bit to coat evenly. Allow to marinate for the remainder of the time that the veggies are marinating, or longer, but the tofu should ideally marinate for at least a half hour. Stir them halfway through, changing the positions of the tofu slices to be sure that they all get to soak up some of this magical marinade.
Once the marinating step is finished, you can begin to assemble your sandwiches.
With a serrated knife, slice a length of baguette (this one was about 8 inches/20 cm long), taking care not to cut entirely through to the other side as having one uncut side helps keep all the fillings in. Spread the bottom part with some mayonnaise and squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top. Alternatively, you could mix the mayonnaise and lime juice ahead of time, but the result will be much the same.
Add three or four slices of marinated tofu, depending on the size of your bread and how stuffed you want the sandwich to be. Spoon some of the marinade over the top.
Now top that with your marinated carrot and cucumber, plus some sliced green onion and fresh cilantro leaves. Make sure you’re using only half of all the ingredients for your first sandwich so that the ingredients for the second one don’t come up short!
Close the sandwich, and you’re done! If you have overstuffed it and it threatens to spring open, you can secure the bread with some of those long toothpicks that have fancy decorative tops.
You can use the excess tofu marinade to stir-fry some seitan, mushrooms or other veggies for a great Asian umami dish (serve over rice or noodles). If any of the rice vinegar remains from the other marinade, you can add it to a homemade salad dressing.
Variations: Substitute or add different fillings: avocado, marinated radish, red bell pepper, etc. Experiment with a peanut-based sauce by mixing some peanut butter into the tofu marinade. Garnish the fillings with sesame seeds before closing the bread for an extra-fancy touch. For a gluten-free version, prepare everything as described (making sure that the soy or tamari sauce you use is a gluten-free one) but serve over a bowl of rice noodles.