Eric Akis: Culture clash makes great sandwich

Eric Akis

If you enjoy a good sandwich, but need inspiration on how to fill it, marrying tastes from two different cultures could provide it.

That’s what happened in Vietnam in the 1950s, when Saigon entrepreneurs Mr. and Mrs. Le made a sandwich that combined Vietnamese ingredients with those brought by French colonialism. The resulting sandwich was called bánh mì, pronounced “bahn mee.”

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Bánh mì means bread in Vietnamese. Pieces of baguette are spread and filled with French-style ingredients, such as butter, mayonnaise, pâté and/or European-style sliced meats, along with Vietnamese-style ingredients. The latter could include such ingredients as sweet-and-sour fresh pickles, sliced chilies and cucumber, fresh herbs, seasoned pork patties and other Asian-style meats.

Putting those items in the bread, rather than serving the bread with them presented on a platter, which used to be done, created something portable that busy people heading to work could grab and take with them.

People must have liked the idea, because bánh mì became very popular in Vietnam and is now enjoyed all over the world, with shops selling them popping up wherever immigrants from Vietnam have settled.

In those businesses, you’ll see many styles of bánh mì being served, including vegetarian options, the route I took when creating today’s recipe.

The recipe sees pieces of baguette or buns spread and filled with ginger sesame mayo, a fresh, homemade pickle, slices of meaty-tasting smoked tofu, slices of vegetarian pâté, fresh herbs sprigs and a few other complementary items. My bánh mì will make a nice summer meal you can enjoy with beer or icy-cold soda water, flavoured with fresh lime juice.

Veggie Smoked Tofu Bánh Mì

These meat-free sandwiches offer a wide range of appealing tastes and textures.

You can make the pickles and mayo for the bánh mì hours in advance. Doing that will enable you to put the sandwiches together more quickly once ready to make them.

Preparation: 45 minutes

Cooking time: About 18 minutes

Makes: Four servings

For vegetable pickle

1/2 cup water

2 Tbsp rice vinegar

2 tsp granulated sugar

1/3 cup radishes, cut into thin, matchstick-sized strips

1/3 cup carrot, cut into thin, matchstick-sized strips

1/3 cup English cucumber, cut into thin, matchstick-sized strips

1/2 tsp salt

Place the water, vinegar and sugar in a small pot. Bring to a simmer over medium heat for 30 seconds, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and cool vinegar mixture to room temperature.

Meanwhile, place radish, carrot and cucumber in a fine sieve. Add the salt and toss to coat the vegetables with it. Set the sieve over a bowl or sink and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

When the 30 minutes are up, rinse the vegetables with cold water, then pat dry. Place the vegetables in a 1-cup (250-mL) jar. Pour in the vinegar mixture. Cover and refrigerate this pickle until needed below.

For the ginger sesame mayo

1/3 cup mayonnaise

2 tsp roasted sesame seeds (see Note 1)

1 tsp finely grated freshly grated ginger

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp rice vinegar

1/2 tsp granulated sugar

Combine ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until needed below.

To make bánh mì

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

200 to 225 grams smoked tofu, cut into 12 thin slices (see Note 2)

4 hot dog or panini buns, or 4 (about 6-inch long) pieces of baguette, split and warmed

1 1/2 cups thinly shredded lettuce or cabbage

225 grams vegetarian pâté, cut into 12 thin slices (see Note 3)

• pea shoots, to taste (see Note 4)

• small cilantro sprigs and/or mint or basil leaves, to taste

• Asian-style hot chili sauce, such as Sriracha, to taste

Preheat oven to 200 F. Place oil in a wide non-stick skillet set over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add half the tofu slices and cook about 90 seconds to two minutes on either side, until tofu is light golden.

Lift the tofu out of the pan, set on a plate and keep warm in the oven. Cook the remaining slices of tofu as you did the first batch and set them on the plate, too.

Spread the inside of each bun (or piece of baguette) with the ginger sesame mayo. Set some lettuce (or cabbage) in each bun. Now make rows of the tofu, pâté, and pea shoots in each bun, then top them with some of the vegetable pickle, cilantro sprigs and/or mint or basil leaves. Drizzle on some of the hot chili sauce, and serve.

Note 1: Roasted sesame seeds are sold in jars or bags at most supermarkets.

Note 2: Smoked tofu is sold at many supermarkets. Package sizes vary, which is why I gave a range. I used West Coast Smoked Tofu made by the Soya Nova Tofu Shop on Saltspring Island (soyanova.com).

Note 3: I used Hornby Island Herb Pâté. For locations that sell it, visit the company’s website (thecardboardhousebakery.com) and click on pâte.

Note 4: Pea shoots are sold in small tubs or bags in the produce section of most supermarkets.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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