This vegan banh mi sandwich with char siu tofu isn't exactly authentic, but boy is it good. Thankfully, banh mi have a history of inclusivity and flexibility. This light meal can be yours in about 30 minutes. Which is great, because you'll want to make it again and again.
Why we love this recipe
I'd been dreaming of tofu banh mi ever since I had one at the ridiculously lovely Elizabeth St. Cafe on our trip to Austin in 2016. 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.
This recipe has:
- All the important elements of the Vietnamese street food classic, but in vegan-friendly form
- Layers and layers of savory flavors
- Crunchy, super-easy pickled vegetables that you'll want use in all sort of other meals, too
- An easy, fabulous way to make tofu that you can also add to grain bowls or eat all by itself
And it's all bundled together in a breezy sandwich that makes a perfect lunch or light dinner.
What you'll need
Here are the ingredients you'll need to make this recipe, along with some protips and substitutions.
For the pickled vegetables
This may be the quickest, easiest pickle you ever make.
- Cut cucumber and carrots into matchsticks. You can use daikon cut into matchsticks or thinly sliced radishes.
- For the vinegar, you can use seasoned rice vinegar // or you can make your own from plain rice vinegar, salt, sugar, and a bit of mirin (optional), according to the directions in the recipe card.
For the tofu
You'll make a quick marinade and then let the tofu soak it up for a few minutes before cooking.
- Extra-firm tofu stays intact in the sandwich and has a nice, gently chewy texture
- Five-spice powder is a warm, cozy, and slightly astringent spice blend made from star anise, fennel seeds, Szechuan peppercorns, clove, and cinnamon
- Hoisin sauce is a savory, salty, sweet sauce based on fermented soybean paste.
To assemble the sandwiches
Here's what you'll need to put the sandwiches together.
- The rolls: Banh mi means "bread" in Vietnamese. But the best bread for these sandwiches is NOT fancy. A soft roll with a hint of crust that can be crisped up a bit on the outside is what you're looking for. In New Jersey, this pretty much means a standard-issue sub/hoagie roll.
- I like to use Japanese mayo, but if you're vegan, use your favorite vegan mayo.
- Drain the pickling liquid from the vegetables before serving.
How to make it
Here's all you need to do to make this recipe a success. You can see all the steps in action in the video that accompanies this post.
- Prep the vegetables and stir them together with the vinegar in a shallow bowl. Let them marinate while you make the tofu.
- Slice the tofu into 12 pieces, dry it very well with paper towels, and then marinate.
- Cook the tofu in a single layer, flipping when it gets nice and brown on the underside.
- Assemble the sandwiches, and you're ready to eat!
Expert tips and FAQs
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.
All this to say, maybe these sandwiches double as therapy. And that's not a bad thing.
It's a riveting history saturated with colonialism and migration. For a long time, sandwiches were a largely unattainable luxury in Vietnam due to high prices for imported wheat, and what sandwiches there were tended to look a lot more like French food. Jambon beurre, pâté, that sort of thing.
In the 1950s, when France divided Vietnam, the Le family moved from the Hanoi area to what was then Saigon and opened a shop that basically reinvented and democratized sandwiches. These banh mi eventually proliferated throughout the world, and some are still made by members of the Le family.
You can learn more about this fascinating history here.
How to serve it
To be honest, this sandwich is great all by itself. But we also love it with:
For the pickled vegetables
- 2 medium carrots, cut into matchsticks
- 1 Persian cucumber or ½ English cucumber, seeded and cut into matchsticks
- 1 small daikon, cut into matchsticks, or 8 radishes, sliced
- ½ small red onion, thinly sliced
- ½ 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 soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
- 2 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
- 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 ½ 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 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium-high. Add 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.
- 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 amount 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 ½ 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.
- If you don't have seasoned rice vinegar, stir together ½ cup plain rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon mirin (great if you have it, but don't stress if not) and 1 tablespoon fine sea salt. Heat it up in the microwave or in a small pot until the salt and sugar have dissolved, then let cool to room temperature before pouring over the vegetables.
- 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.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 363Total Fat: 18.7gCarbohydrates: 35.7gFiber: 5.4gProtein: 11.8g