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.
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.
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.
Downtown Portland, Oregon. Me holding a Baoguette sloppy Joe-style sandwich on the street in Manhattan.
A great late night snack that embodies the evolution of Viet food. (Note the Hellman's mayo.)
A snippet of what I developed and refined for the book: banh mi buns, cilantro Maggi mayo, and a drunken chicken banh mi.
Given the book's overall size, the Hanoi grilled chicken banh mi on the cover is true to size.
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.