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Mushroom pâté is the key to an umami-packed vegan banh mi

(Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post/food styling by Gina Nistico for The Washington Post)

At first glance, the banh mi would seem to be an ideal sandwich to adapt for a plant-based diet.

That’s because, in the photo-ready version of the symbolic sandwich of Vietnam, you see an individual loaf of Vietnamese baguette overflowing with leafy cilantro, a tangle of carrot and daikon radish pickles, generous slices of cucumber, and as many rings of jalapeño as fit your tolerance and personality. You know there’s something under all that, but it seems like that could be switched out as a cosmetic change, right?

Sort of. Classically, that base layer is playing the definitive role in the sandwich, and it’s probably pork. If you go to a banh mi shop, it will almost always have a vegetarian version, most likely with tofu, in the spot where the pork would otherwise be. And that’s fine.

So you can have that sandwich, and it might be terrific. But if you have history with the classic banh mi, it might seem like something is missing. Because something is.

The one thing that can be a challenge to translate without using an animal product is the pâté spread on the bread. By the time you see the sandwich, that pâté is probably thoroughly obscured by everything on top of it, but its presence is abundantly clear as soon as you take a bite – a grounding element of earthiness and funk that gives that garden of bright freshness on top something to cut through.

And a banh mi is just not the same without it. Some shops even note on the menu that the vegetarian versions don’t have pâté on them. It’s like a warning.

I’m not really in a position to solve many of the world’s problems, but I felt like this was one I could take a crack at.

Get the recipe: Mushroom Banh Mi

I was reminded of a night several years ago when my very favorite vegetarian, Kristen, was visiting and we had a dinner party. I decided to include a cheese plate, but wanted it to look like a charcuterie board. How exactly I managed that is mostly lost to history except for one thing: I made a whipped butter with sauteed mushrooms that I processed until smooth. I called it shiitake pâté and we spread it on crostini, topped with pickles and cheese. It was earthy, bordering on ethereal. I had flavored it with classic pâté ingredients, thyme and brandy, but I immediately knew that the base could be taken in a lot of directions.

And suddenly, I knew how to make the vegetarian banh mi that I wanted to eat.

For the bulk of this sandwich, I changed nothing from the classic: Those toppings achieved classic status because they’re perfect. To replace the meat, I simply sauteed some oyster mushrooms, though any other – portobello, cremini, shiitake – would work. As would seared tofu.

To make the pâté, I sauteed some cremini – again, any mushroom would work – with shallot, then buzzed it in the food processor with fermented beans and powdered dry shiitakes to up the umami factor (I can’t get enough mushrooms and love adding mushroom powder to things, but you can skip that if you want). The beans I had on hand were black and came in a jar with chile oil, but any fermented bean product will work. If you go to an Asian market, you’ll probably find a shelf full of different varieties. Just close your eyes and pick one: It will work and be delicious. The fermented beans bring a version of the trademark funk of the original liver-based pâté.

That just leaves the bread, and while I am generally a fan of soft sub rolls, this is a place for a sturdy, crusty roll. If you can get your hands on traditional Vietnamese baguettes, you’re living a good life and should do that. If not, just go to the supermarket or your favorite bakery and get a good French baguette.

Warmed up briefly in the oven, the bread provided the crunch and exterior structure the sandwich needs and the interior softness I like. It worked great.

If you want to make extra pâté, you can use it on other kinds of sandwich, or on crackers with cheese and pickles, or even toss it in warm pasta or rice.

But I’m probably just going to make more banh mi.

Get the recipe: Mushroom Banh Mi