Lemongrass Tofu Banh Mi
Prior to the pandemic hitting, I told myself that I needed to stop relying on tofu as my main choice for vegetarians at Meatwaves. I had come to almost always fallback on it because tofu really is a blank slate that I could season in any manner to make it fit in with whatever theme was chosen for the day, but I felt like I needed to force myself into new creative directions that would be more beneficial for me as a recipe developer, and my guests as eaters. Fast forward a year and half later, to the middle of the summer of 2021, and you'll find me preparing for the first pandemic Meatwave, at which point I had not cooked for my friends for so long and I was craving any kind of return to the familiar that I just picked up some firm tofu, applied a lemongrass marinade, and turned that into these lemongrass tofu banh mis, which took a lot of influence from a recipe on Serious Eats.
Like with all banh mi recipes, this one started out with making pickled diakons and carrots. At one point in my life, preparing both of these vegetables into matchsticks felt like such a chore that it kept me from making banh mis too often, but once I got a mandoline with matchstick-size slicing capabilities, this part of the process became quick and simple and no longer a hinderance to making these sandwiches at home.
What has kept me from making banh mis more often than not nowadays is not having the proper bread. When I lived in NYC, I was able to easily get the perfect banh mi baguettes with their thin, but crackling exterior and chewy interiors. I have yet to find a bakery that has those here in central NC, so I've been falling back to French baguettes, none of which had been quite right, until this particular day. I made this recipe on a holiday and it totally slipped my mind that most bakeries would be closed, which left me finding alternative sources of baguettes. The ones I ended up picking up at a grocery I don't frequent all that much were actually the best I've gotten in Durham to date, so that was a happy little accident of developing this recipe.
For the tofu seasoning, I relied on a tried-and-true marinade for Vietnamese lemongrass pork chops that's a favorite of mine. It requires a lot of lemongrass, which ends up having a pretty subtle effect on meat, so I was interested to see how it would turn out on the comparatively more flavorless tofu. I also needed to sub out the fish sauce for soy sauce to make this veggie-friendly, which had me lessoning the amount of sugar as well because I no longer had to balance out the extreme saltiness of the fish sauce.
You can certainly put this marinade together in a food process to save time and energy, but I've found that the best results really come by putting in the effort with a mortar and pestle. Pounding all the ingredients into a paste results in a different texture with more pronounced flavors than when done in a food processor. I thought on tofu, this might actually make even more of a difference than on pork due to its light touch.
After making the lemongrass mixture, I prepped the tofu by first draining a couple packages of the extra-firm variety—this is the most ideal type for grilling. Then, to remove even more moisture, which helps with faster cooking and browning on the grill, I gently pressed the tofu between paper towels to draw out additional water.
I then seasoned the tofu by spreading half of the lemongrass mixture all over each slice. Because my schedule benefited from advance prep, I actually did this the night before and set the tofu slices in a container in the fridge overnight, but that's not really a necessary part of this recipe and seasoning right before grilling should lead to pretty similar final results.
Having relied heavily on tofu in the past, I'm no stranger to grilling this stuff and have found my preferred method for best results. It starts with roasting the tofu over indirect heat for about seven minutes per side. During this time, a lot of moisture is drawn out from the tofu, leaving the exterior pretty dry, but the interior still moist. I then move the tofu over direct heat where it browns quickly and gains an attractive grilled appearance.
I added an extra step in this recipe of spreading the remaining lemongrass mixture on the tofu right at the end of grilling, while the tofu slices were still really hot. This is meant to add an extra boost of that flavorful sauce and a little extra moisture at the same time.
I used the standard banh mi prep here with the baguette getting a spread of mayo followed by cucumber slices, tofu slices, jalapeño slices, pickled daikons and carrots, and finally some fresh cilantro. I felt like this is one of those vegetarian recipes where you don't really miss the meat because the tofu really functions as its own thing and doesn't feel like a meat substitute. The tofu had a strong savory lemongrass flavor with a nice kick of heat from the white pepper that was much more pronounced than when the same style marinade is used on meat. It added a ton of flavor to any already flavorful sandwich that had the tang and crunch of the pickles, freshness of the cilantro and cucumbers, spiciness and fruitiness of the jalapeños, and creamy richness of the mayo. All-in-all, it was only further proof that the banh mi is a king among sandwiches, no matter the choice of main protein.
Lemongrass Tofu Banh Mi
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 30 Minutes
- Cook 15 Minutes
- Total 45 Minutes
- For the Pickled Daikon and Carrots
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
- 1 medium daikon radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 3/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt
- For the Tofu
- 2 teaspoons whole white peppercorns
- 3 stalks lemongrass, bottom 4 to 5 inches only, outer leaves discarded, tender core thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup cilantro stalks
- 1 small shallot, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4 medium cloves garlic
- 25 grams palm sugar or light brown sugar (about 2 tablespoons)
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 2 teaspoon soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 pound extra-firm tofu, drained, rinsed, and cut into 1/2-inch thick 2-inch squares
- For the Sandwiches
- 4 Vietnamese-style baguettes, or 2 French baguettes cut into 10-inch portions
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 seedless cucumber, cut into 1/8-inch slices
- 2 medium jalapeños, sliced
- 1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
- To make the pickled daikon and carrots: Place daikon and carrot slices into a large glass jar. In a small saucepan set over medium-high heat, whisk together water, vinegar, sugar, and salt until solids are completely dissolved. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Pour liquid into a jar with vegetables until they are completely submerged in liquid, cover jar, and let cool to room temperature. Place in refrigerator and store until ready to use.
- To make the tofu: Place peppercorns in a mortar and pestle and lightly crush. Add in lemongrass, cilantro stalks, shallot, garlic cloves, palm or light brown sugar, shallot, and salt and work into a rough paste. Transfer mixture to a small bowl and whisk in soy sauce and oil.
- Line a work surface or sheet pan with paper towels. Lay tofu slices in a single layer on paper towel and lay another layer of paper on top. Press gently on tofu to squeeze out excess moisture. Spread half of lemongrass mixture all over tofu slices. Reserve remaining lemongrass mixture.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place tofu on cool side of grill, cover, and cook for 7 minutes. Flip tofu, cover, and continue cooking until tofu has lightly browned, about 7 minutes more. Move tofu to hot side of grill and cook until lightly charred and crisp, 1-2 minutes per side. Spread remaining half of lemongrass mixture all over tofu slices and transfer to a cutting board or plate.
- To make the sandwiches: Spread mayonnaise on each half of baguettes. Line bottom halves of baguettes with cucumber slices and top with tofu slices followed by jalapeño slices, cilantro, and pickled daikons and carrots to taste. Serve sandwiches immediately.