Pho and Banh Mi are likely the two dishes you think of when you think of Vietnamese food. Like Pad Thai in Thailand, ceviche in Peru, pasta in Italy – Banh Mi is just iconic for Western palates.
Until we traveled to Vietnam last year, I had no idea just how varied Banh Mi recipes could be. As with any food culture, amazing things can happen when you put good things between good bread.
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Banh Mi: The Basics
Bánh mì very roughly translates to “wheat bread” and came about when the French introduced baguettes to what was then Indochina during French Colonialism. Now the words are very understood to be the sandwich we associate with bánh mì today.
At its most basic, banh mi is a sandwich served on a special type of French baguette with savory fillings ranging from BBQ pork, meatballs, pate, and even fried eggs. The sandwiches are usually made with fresh and/or pickled vegetables and lots of fresh herbs (everything in Vietnam is made with LOTS of fresh herbs).
My favorite thing about banh mi is they’re acceptable to eat almost anytime throughout the day. Breakfast banh mi, lunch banh mi, dinner banh mi, and snack banh mi are all available, encouraged, and delicious.
Lemongrass Marinated Beef
For this banh mi recipe, we’re making lemongrass marinated beef for the main protein. And guys, it is SO good. The sauce is in and of itself is a flavor bomb with lemongrass, garlic, shallots, oyster sauce and honey.
Oyster sauce is a power house Asian condiment. It’s my secret go to whenever I want to give anything a sweet/salty depth of flavor (think stir fry, marinated meat or tofu, etc.). The seafood flavor isn’t nearly as prominent as it is in something like fish sauce. It’s like soy sauce and hoisin sauce had a dark and broody baby with lots and lots of depth.
The sweet sticky lemongrass sauce for this recipe is inspired by the sauce for Pork Chops with Caramel Marinade in the cookbook An: To Eat. It’s a really beautiful collection of Vietnamese family recipes, and I love thumbing through it for inspiration.
You’ll marinate the beef with the sauce for 20-30 minutes before cooking, and then quickly caramelize everything over high heat right before you make the banh mi. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I ate nearly one sandwich’s worth of lemongrass beef before I even got around to making the banh mi recipe.
Banh Mi: Key Ingredients & Methods
Arguably, the most important ingredient in a banh mi recipe is the baguette. You don’t want to go buying the same French baguette you would use for a French cheese board. No, with banh mi you want something more similar to what you would serve a po’ boy on. A baguette, yes, but a lighter, fluffier, and flakier baguette.
The baguettes in Vietnam are made partially with rice flour, which gives them an extra crispiness and airiness that I just haven’t been able to truly replicate back at home. The soft French baguettes from the store that you then bake before serving so they dry out a bit work well. I also like kaiser rolls or ciabatta bread. Just look for bread that has a soft, sharp crunch on the outside but lots of airy fluff on the inside. You shouldn’t be hurting the roof of your mouth when you’re eating it, but you should also be generating a lot of crumbs from the crunchiness.
Another key ingredient for a banh mi recipe is pickled vegetables, specifically pickled carrots and daikon if you can buy them or make them.
Pssst: I wrote a whole post on making quick pickled Asian vegetables here.
The pickled vegetables add a wonderful sweetness and crunch to the sandwich that’s entirely different from the crunch you get from the bread. It’s all about layering flavors and textures when it comes to banh mi, and the pickled vegetables get you one step closer to that nirvana.
All about the toppings
Once you have the bread, the protein, and the pickled vegetables, it’s time to consider the condiments. This is when you can really get crazy with things. Whenever I’m making a banh mi recipe, I have a few non-negotiables.
First, I have to have some sort of spicy mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is another French influence that really takes the banh mi to the next level. I like to mix equal parts sriracha and mayonnaise for a creamy, spicy sauce for the banh mi. Another way to capture this richness is by adding pâté (another French influence). Pâté isn’t for everyone though, and mayonnaise certainly does the trick.
Secondly, I have to have some fresh vegetables. Lettuce works well, but my favorite is cucumber slices. It gives an extra and different crunch to the sandwich (all about those textures), along with a coolness that works well with the spicy mayonnaise.
And finally, you just have to have lots and lots of fresh herbs. Cilantro and mint are classic, but you could also make a case for other herbs like basil or green onions. For this, we’re sticking with the originals. Mounds of cilantro and mint for us.
All of these things: the soft bread, the sweet lemongrass beef, the sriracha mayonnaise, the pickled vegetables, the fresh cilantro – it all comes together to make the perfect sandwich. Every bite has a little bit of everything. You have all the best flavors and textures, and it is pure perfection.
Lemongrass Beef Banh Mi
Sweet sticky lemongrass marinated beef tops this incredibly flavorful banh mi – made with lots of fresh herbs, sriracha mayonnaise, and pickled daikon. It’s sandwich perfection!
For the Lemongrass Marinated Beef:
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp chopped garlic
- 2 tbsp chopped shallots
- 2 tbsp lemongrass
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 lb beef sirloin tip
For the Banh Mi:
- 1 French baguette
- 4 tbsp Sriracha mayonnaise equal parts mayonnaise and sriracha sauce combined to taste
- 1 cup pickled Asian vegetables
- ½ English cucumber sliced
- ½ bunch cilantro leaves and tender stems only
- 2 oz fresh mint
Lemongrass Marinated Beef
Start by making the lemongrass marinated beef. Slice the beef into 1 inch strips and mix in a bowl with the honey, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, oyster sauce, brown sugar, and fish sauce.
Combine the beef with the sauce then let marinate in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes. While the beef marinates, prep the rest of the banh mi toppings.
After marinated, heat a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add the beef once the pan is very hot and let sear undisturbed for 3-5 minutes.
Stir the beef to sear the other sides and saute until browned and well caramelized, about 10 minutes in total.
Once the beef is cooked, start assembling the banh mi. Slice the baguette into 4 quarters and split each quarter open to make four individual sandwiches
In each sandwich, spread sriracha mayonnaise on each side the bread. Add the sweet & sticky lemongrass beef to each sandwich
Top each sandwich with pickled vegetables, cucumber slices, cilantro, and mint. Serve immediately.
Lemongrass Marinade adapted from Pork Chops with Caramel Marinade in the cookbook An: To Eat