Ever since getting my first taste of Vietnamese food back in high school, I’ve been completely enamored with the unmatched balance of flavors in each humble meal. That first slurp of phở… discovering exotic fruits like rambutan… this was all very special and revelatory, but they were nothing compared to my introduction to bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich masterpiece that may actually be my favorite dish on earth. (Though if this was a Sophie’s Choice situation with banh mi up against pizza, I don’t know what I’d do.)
So when my dear friend Andrea Nguyen—blogger extraordinaire at Viet World Kitchen and fellow Ten Speed Press author—told me she was working on a cookbook dedicated to banh mi, I got REALLY excited. And I instantly blurted out that I’d be happy to make a vegan banh mi recipe (with plenty of Sriracha) for her, if she was looking for anybody to contribute. “Sure!” she says. Wait. Really?
My mind raced thinking of all the possibilities but it quickly relaxed into its happy place: dreaming of the vegan lemongrass tofu banh mi I get from Mandoline Grill, a rad Vietnamese food truck that makes the rounds here in LA.
Lemongrass was in for sure, but rather than tofu, I decided to use tempeh, a pressed “cake” made of fermented whole soybeans. I know that probably doesn’t sound delectable, but one of the things I really like about tempeh is that it’s a flavor chameleon, largely taking on the character of whatever it’s seasoned with or marinated in. On top of that, tempeh is a better source of protein and fiber than tofu since the whole soybean is kept intact, and the fermentation creates B vitamins, which is great news for us here plant-eaters.
Yep, that’s a block of tempeh. (Easy to find at Whole Foods Markets and many health food stores, in the refrigerated section by the tofu.) And while it may look like compressed cat food, tempeh actually has a really great bite to it. I love to slice it and roast it—as we do in this recipe—or throw it on the grill, but it’s also my secret weapon whenever there’s a recipe that calls for ground beef… when I’m making taco filling or a pot of chili. I just crumble tempeh up instead, and let it be a sponge for the spices and flavorings it’s cooked in.
I also wanted to add some ginger because of the bright, inimitable zing that it always brings, and I’d of course be jazzing it up with some Sriracha… just a little bit.
And now, The Banh Mi Handbook is finally out, and I’m so proud to have my recipe in it! I look up to Andrea greatly and I know how hard she works on her recipes, so it’s a real honor to have one of mine in such great company. I’m celebrating by making it all over again, and in looking through the rest of the book, I’m amazed (though not surprised) by how thorough it all is, with interesting historical information, over 50 recipes—including six that are vegetarian!—and fun ideas for modern updates to this classical Vietnamese sandwich. Want to make the bread too? There’s a recipe for that. (I just grabbed some organic demi-baguettes from Whole Foods this time, but you better believe I’ll be making that bread next time!) And Andrea’s daikon & carrot pickle recipe? Divine. Check it out below!
- 2 (8-ounce) packages tempeh, all soybean or with grains
- 3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- Hefty 1-inch chunk fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 4 green onions, white part only, coarsely chopped
- 1 medium stalk lemongrass, trimmed and coarsely chopped (1/4 cup)
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more as needed
- 1/4 cup Sriracha sauce
- 1/4 cup Maggi Seasoning sauce (I used coconut aminos this time because I had some on hand; Andrea has other suggested Maggi substitutes)
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 medium daikon radish (about 1 pound)
- 1 large carrot (about 6 ounces)
- 1 teaspoon salt, fine sea salt preferred
- 2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar
- 1 cup lukewarm water
- 6 French or Italian bread rolls, or thin-crusted demi-baguettes (NOT rustic/heavy)
- 6 tablespoons vegan mayo
- 1 medium cucumber, thinly sliced
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 jalapeño, thinly sliced (optional)
- Cut the tempeh crosswise into slices, each a scant 1⁄2 inch thick. Arrange flat in a baking dish, such as a 3-quart glass pan suitable for lasagna. Make a partial second layer, as needed. Set aside.
- For the marinade, use a food processor to mince the garlic, ginger, green onion, and lemongrass. Add the lime juice, 2 tablespoons of oil, Sriracha, Maggi, and water. Pulse to blend. Taste, and if you like high heat and acidity, add an extra tablespoon of Sriracha and lime juice. Pour over the tempeh. Cover and let sit for 2 hours, or refrigerate overnight, returning to room temperature before moving on.
- Meanwhile, prepare the Daikon & Carrot Pickle recipe. Peel and cut the daikon into sticks about 3 inches long and 1⁄4 inch thick, the width of an average chopstick. Peel and cut the carrot to match the size of the daikon sticks but slightly skinnier. Put the vegetables in a bowl. Toss with the salt and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Massage and knead the vegetables for 3 minutes, or until you can bend a piece of daikon and the tips touch without breaking. They will have lost about a quarter of their original volume. Flush with running water, then drain in a mesh strainer or colander. Press or shake to expel excess water. Transfer to a 4-cup jar.
- For the brine, stir together the remaining 1⁄2 cup sugar with the vinegar and water until dissolved. Pour into the jar to cover well. Discard any excess brine. Use after 1 hour or refrigerate for up to a month.
- For the tempeh, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375°F. Bake the tempeh, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Remove the tempeh from the oven but keep the oven on. Cool for a few minutes, then use a spatula to transfer the tempeh to the prepared baking sheet, arranging the slices flat; if a side is coated with seasoning solids, let it face up. Pour the marinade into a medium saucepan and boil for 5 to 8 minutes, until reduced by nearly half and resembling barbecue sauce. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, bake the tempeh for 10 minutes. Flip, then brush on the reduced marinade, saving the leftover. Bake for 10 minutes longer, or until the slices look dry and are slightly burnt orange-red. Cool for 10 minutes before using, or cool completely and refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 days; freeze it for up to a month.
- Use a serrated bread knife, slit the bread rolls lengthwise, leaving it attached on the back side to hold the sandwich together. (It's OK if you cut all the way through.) Use your fingers to remove some of the insides from both halves. Recrisp the bread in an oven (or toaster oven!) preheated to 325°F. Let cool for several minutes before spreading a tablespoon of vegan mayo across the bottom of each roll. If there's any tempeh marinade left, smear it on top of the mayo. Sprinkle a few dashes of Maggi Seasoning (or liquid aminos or low-sodium soy sauce or just a little salt & pepper) on the top half of each roll. Layer in the tempeh, some of the pickled daikon and carrot, slices of cucumber and jalapeño, sprigs of cilantro, close it up, and devour!
- Bonus tip: Enjoy the tempeh slightly warm to savor the tempeh’s natural umami. Or sear the tempeh over medium-high heat in a nonstick skillet with a light film of coconut or canola oil. You only need about 30 seconds per side to pick up a slight crispness and a bit of browning.
Reprinted with permission from The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches, by Andrea Nguyen, © 2014, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.