Along with pho, the noodle soup, banh mi is one of Vietnam’s most famous culinary exports – a French-style bread filled with rich meats and zingy, fresh vegetables and herbs.
Vietnamese banh mi becomes an attractive colorful between-service snack.
“It is a good between-service snack. I eat one every other day. It is definitely not something you get sick of,” she says with a laugh, as she stands in front of an array of colorful ingredients ready to be stuffed into a crusty baguette at Le Petit Saigon in Wan Chai, the article wrote.
“As a sandwich, it is well balanced in flavors and textures. There’s the crusty warm bread, the richness of the flavors of the meat, and then the tartness and sourness from the pickles,” says Phan, who is also the head chef of next-door sister restaurant, Le Garcon Saigon.
Cutting open a baguette, Phan begins layering it with thinly sliced pork belly, terrine, and Vietnamese sausage, topped off with chicken liver pate and house-made mayonnaise. Next, she balances that with slices of fresh cucumber, pickled vegetables, Maggi sauce, coriander, spring onion, and chilli – “for punch”.
Phan is not alone in her love of the sandwich. Banh mi has gone from humble beginnings on the streets of Saigon to become a global sensation – mirroring the history of modern Vietnam. So how did a country in Southeast Asia – known for rice and noodle dishes – originate such a Western specialty as a sandwich?
To seek the answer, the article’s authors met chef Peter Cuong Franklin who has researched French cuisine’s influence in Vietnam to explore the story of Vietnamese banh mi.
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“When the French colonized Vietnam, they needed to eat their own food. So they brought things like wheat to make bread, cheese, coffee, and other products that they would consume every day,” Franklin says.
The Vietnamese were gradually introduced to these French foods, he says, though they were expensive back then. Eventually, wheat, and the technique for making baguettes, were imported, and the locals – in particular the ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese – learned how to make bread.
The flavors of the modern banh mi vary by region in Vietnam. In Hanoi in the north, the fillings are simpler than the “original” found in Ho Chi Minh City in the south and include high-quality cold cuts. In the central coastal city of Hoi An, the meat used is served warm.
“The US is a hub of pop culture, and over the years TV food shows, travel shows, Anthony Bourdain, food blogging and social media” have helped introduce people in the West to this quintessential fusion Vietnamese dish, says Phan.
Phan believes the wider American population embraced banh mi when it was introduced by Vietnamese immigrants because the ingredients used were “familiar” to the American palate.
“Everyone loves a good sandwich. And in every culture, there is some sort of sandwich. So banh mi is very accessible culturally, so that’s why it has become so popular worldwide,” she said.