Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Banh Mi Chay (Vietnamese Tofu Sandwiches)

I love sandwiches.

Who doesn't, right? They are the a perfect combination of taste and texture, and are often bookended by God's greatest creation: bread. I remember going on the Atkins diet in college to try to lose my freshman 15 (more like freshman 20). Breadless for 4 months. That was a dark, dark time.

Let's get back on track here. I love sandwiches from all cultures - American, French, Spanish, Cuban, Italian - but my all-time favorite sandwich hails from an unlikely source, Vietnam. The Vietnamese Banh Mi is traditionally made on a rice flour/wheat roll and filled with pickled carrots and daikon radish, cucumbers, cilantro, jalapenos, mayonnaise, and pork. However, it can also be made with tofu.

While living in Philadelphia and cooking at a vegan restaurant, I kept hearing about this Vietnamese Tofu Hoagie. Note: everything in Philadelphia is called a hoagie. There is a very large Vietnamese population there, which means epic Asian markets and great restaurants on every corner. So, when Geoff came to visit one weekend, we set out to find the best tofu hoagies in the city. First let me say, when we walked up to this supposed hoagie heaven, we assumed we would be getting these tasty delights from the upscale Vietnamese restaurant on the block. As we stared at the menu, however, the waiter walked up to us and said, with a bit of an attitude, "If you want bahn mi, it is next door." Oh. Next door? As in, the convenient store? Apparently so. We went around the corner and walked into the 7/11 type establishment and found a small counter with a crazy menu behind it, which included various animal parts I won't speak of here. We ordered our tofu hoagies, with extra hot sauce, and went to the nearest park to enjoy. HOLY COW. These sandwiches were to die for. Thin slices of lemongrass tofu were topped with a pile of pickled veggies that added a lovely sourness, the garnishes - cilantro, jalapeno, and cucumbers all added a fresh element, while the spicy mayo brought the whole thing to a new mouth-watering level.

Mission accomplished. These things were good.

I vowed that day to find a way to recreate the famous sandwich, and have done what I believe to be a pretty solid job. I got some help for the lemongrass tofu, which I found to be a bit tricky at first.

Before we go to the food, I have a couple notes. First, most Americans use a crusty white Italian bread for this sandwich, because the traditional bread would be pretty hard to find. Even the Vietnamese restaurants I went to in Philly used the bread from Sardi's in the Italian market. So, I say to you, use what you want. I chose to used a whole-wheat sub roll because I prefer whole wheat almost all the time. Here we go...

Banh Mi Chay
Makes 2-4 sandwiches, depending on bread size

Tofu Ingredients
1 block extra firm tofu
1/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic
5 table spoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 -2 stalks of fresh lemongrass. When chopped should be about 1/4 cup.

Sandwich Ingredients
3 hoagie rolls
3 carrots, shredded
1/4 large daikon radish, shredded
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup vegan mayo (regular works as well)
1/4 cup Sambal or Sriracha chili sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce

Optional Garnishes (Any combo you want! I used all of them)
Jalapeno, thinly sliced
Fresh cilantro
Cucumbers, sliced
Green onions, diced

In a large bowl, combine shredded carrots and daikon, sugar, and vinegar. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.

While the vegetables are "pickling," start working on your tofu. Find the instructions for the tofu here, however I made some small changes when I made mine. Reduce the oil to 1/4 cup and blend all ingredients in a food processor.

While the tofu is marinating, work on your condiments. In a small bowl, combine mayo, chili sauce, and soy sauce. Set aside.

Slice your garnishes. Make sure to slice the jalapenos paper thin, as a huge chunk of pepper on top of the spicy mayo might send your mouth into orbit.

Once the tofu is finished, assemble the sandwiches and dig in! This is a really casual, satisfying meal and is best eaten with people you can just hang out with. It is a messy one!

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