Vegan Banh Mi with Char Siu Tofu
This vegan banh mi sandwich with char siu tofu isn't exactly authentic, but boy is it good. And it's yours in about half an hour.
Use rolls that get a little crisp on the outside with a light toasting but are kind of medium-shitty and soft on the inside.
Happy Friday! It's time for some wildly inauthentic but totally delicious Vietnamese street food created in my New Jersey kitchen. Sound good? I've been dreaming of tofu banh mi ever since I had one at the ridiculously lovely Elizabeth St. Cafe on our trip to Austin last year. I finally made the time to play around with flavors and textures and come up with a vegan sandwich that ticks all the boxes and then some.
Char siu memories
Char siu is that wonderful slow-roasted Chinese pork with the red tint on the outside. Char siu pork banh mi is never really at the top of the banh mi menu, but it's often on there somewhere. Char siu tofu? Maybe not so much. But maybe it's time to change that.
One of my strongest memories from childhood is being at my friend Mimi's house when I was maybe 10 years old, and taking the first bite of a baked pork bun (cha siu bao), made with char siu pork in a sticky sauce. I loved it so much that it made me incredibly happy but also kind of devastated that I knew I wouldn't be able to get my hands on them on a regular basis. I think her parents had brought them home from New York City as a special treat.
Anyway, that's a long way of saying that char siu and I go way back.
A char siu recipe with tofu
This char siu tofu is noooooooot exactly the same as pork. For one thing, it's tofu. And for another, I didn't make any extreme efforts to replicate a traditional char siu marinade. Also, I dispensed with the red food coloring, because come on. Still, we were all REALLY VERY HAPPY with the way it came out. (Is that clear?) I honestly spent like half the evening wishing I'd bought two packages of tofu and more rolls so that I could just do the whole damn thing over again. Why, what did you do with your Saturday night last weekend?
Fun fact about/ totally not about banh mi
I just did a find-and-replace to make sure I hadn't written "bahn" anywhere instead of "banh." I hadn't, amazingly enough. Still, I'm giggling thinking of some sort of German-Vietnamese train sandwich, which would only be slightly weirder than the French colonialist history that produced the actual banh mi.
For the pickled vegetables (see note 1)
- 2 medium carrots, cut into matchsticks
- 1 Persian cucumber or 1/2 English cucumber, seeded and cut into matchsticks
- 1 small daikon, cut into matchsticks (see note 2)
- 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar
For the char siu tofu
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon five spice powder
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon good soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
- 3 tablespoons neutral high-heat oil (such as safflower), DIVIDED
- 1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar
- 1 package extra-firm tofu, cut into 12 slices
For the sandwiches
- 2 hoagie rolls (about 12 inches each), each cut into two portions (see note 3)
- Mayo (vegan if you care)
- Fresh cilantro leaves
- Jalapeño slices (fresh or pickled)
For the pickled vegetables:
- Place the cut vegetables into a shallow bowl. Pour the 1/2 cup vinegar overtop and stir to coat. Let sit until ready to assemble sandwiches, stirring occasionally. Before using, drain off excess vinegar.
For the char siu tofu:
- In a 9x13-inch baking dish, whisk together the garlic, five spice powder, brown sugar, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, 1 tablespoon of the oil and the 1 tablespoon of vinegar. Dry the tofu slices as well as possible by pressing lightly with your hands between thick layers of paper towels. Add tofu slices to baking dish in a single layer and turn to coat top and bottom of all slices completely with marinade. Let sit for 10 minutes.
- In a 10- or 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat one tablespoon of the oil over medium-high. Add half the tofu slices in a single layer and cook undisturbed until beginning to char on the underside, then flip and do the same for the other side. Remove to a plate and repeat with remaining tablespoon of oil and tofu slices. When tofu is cooked, pour any remaining marinade into pan and cook, stirring, for less than a minute, until thickened slightly. Pour over tofu slices.
For the sandwiches:
- Lightly toast the rolls, then split each one lengthwise down the middle, leaving the bottom intact so the roll can open like a book. Spread a generous schemer of mayo onto each of the inside faces. Tuck in three slices of tofu and a generous serving of pickled vegetables. Drizzle with sriracha and top with plenty of cilantro leaves and jalapeño slices to taste. Serve immediately.
- I've tried to give an indication of how much produce you should buy, but really you want to end up with about 1 1/2 to 2 cups total of matchsticked veggies. Half a cup each of carrots, cucumber and daikon would be ideal, but this isn't something to stress about. Whatever you have will be delicious.
- I can’t always find daikon in our local stores, but I don’t let that stop me from making these sandwiches.You can slice a few red radishes or just leave it out.
- Real banh mi is all about the bread. If you can get legit Vietnamese banh mi rolls, go for it. Otherwise, the key is to find whatever rolls you can that can get a little crisp on the outside with a light toasting but are kind of medium-shitty and soft on the inside. In New Jersey this means run of the mill “sub” or “hoagie” rolls. You can also use sections of baguette.