32. Just Give Me the Bread!

Vietnam’s best bánh mì sandwich, a legacy of 19th-century French colonists, is a perfect balance of soft, crispy bread and fresh meats and vegetables.  

A perfect banh mi measures meat, vegetables and savory bread in a fine balance. (JGA photo)

There’s a rapid-fire art to making a perfect bánh mì sandwich. Blink and you probably will miss it.

Slice the baguette lengthwise. Spread mayo and chile sauce. (Srỉracha will do.) Add cilantro and thinly sliced cucumber. Pack in an ample quantity of chopped pork: pâté, sausage, pork belly, head cheese. Add a few sliced chile peppers, a handful of carrot-radish slaw, maybe a dash of Maggi sauce (a more robust version of soy sauce).

Presto! You have a bánh mì. And the entire production took fewer than 30 seconds.

Throughout Vietnam, at mobile food carts and in brick-and-mortar restaurants, bánh mì has a presence that is highly recognizable to local citizens and foreign residents alike. It’s one of my go-to meals at any time of day or night.

A mobile kitchen operator fashions a gourmet sandwich in the blink of an eye. (JGA photo)

‘Baked Wheat’

Other than phở, the savory beef noodle soup found on menus from Saigon to Sydney to San Francisco, no Vietnamese food is better known in the Western world than bánh mì.

Literally “baked wheat,” and synonymous with bread, bánh mì is in fact a baguette sandwich that originated in the mid-19th century during the French colonial era in this country.

To me, it is all about that freshly baked bread. The perfect bánh mì is about 10 cm (6½ inches) long, shaped like a short hoagie roll. Its flame-grilled crust is thin and crispy; ínside, the white bread has a soft, ảiry consistency. Aficionados say the fluffy texture is due in part to the blending of rice flour with the wheat.

Most often eaten for breakfast or as an afternoon snack — it’s baked twice daily for freshness in the tropical heat — the bread is cut the long way and filled with ingredients. My friend Lan Anh argues that it is not the bread, but the freshness of the component meats and vegetables that determine quality.

Freshly baked, flame-grilled banh mi rolls await the next customer. (JGA photo)

Choose Your Meat

There are many varieties of bánh mì. The most common is bánh mì thit, a meat (usually pork) sandwich. Often several kinds of pork are used in a single sandwich, including chả lụa (pork sausage), liver pâté, pork belly and head cheese.

Additionally, a sandwich will always come with a variety of vegetables, including sliced cucumber, cilantro (coriander leaf), and shredded pickled carrots and daikon (radish). It will also have thinly sliced chilies (very hot), sweet Viet chili sauce, a dab of mayonnaise and often soy or Maggi sauce.

Other than bánh mì thit, popular types of bánh mì include xíu mại (smashed pork meatballs), barbecued pork sausage, shredded pork with nước mắm (fish sauce), and ham. You can also get them with grilled chicken, fish patties or sardines. A vegetarian version with tofu is especially popular at Buddhist temple celebrations.

A particular breakfast version ís the bánh mì trung p-la, or fried-egg sandwich. It’s made with onions and sprinkled with soy sauce. And for those who like their food sweet, bánh mì kẹp kem is an ice-cream sandwich with scoops of ice cream, topped with crushed peanuts.

Pre-cut meats for banh mi preparation share a display case with fried chicken. (JGA photo)

Blame the French

Beginning in the 1860s, French colonists in Vietnam, isolated from Paris patisseries and boulangeries, began to make their own breads, pastries and other baked goods. Initially, they were priced beyond the rich of ordinary Vietnamese. But during the First World War, as production couldn’t keep up with the demands of an influx of French soldiers, rice was added to wheat flour — and the cost dropped to make bread accessible to nearly everyone.

Initially, bánh mì were mainly ham sandwiches, with a little mayo and perhaps pâté, to cater to the Gallic palate. After the political division of Vietnam in 1954, when the French were deposed, an exodus from north to south of more than a million Ẻuropean loyalists led to the development of a more creative bánh mì Sài Gòn, which quickly evolved into the street food that remains popular today.

Following the end of warfare and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, overseas Vietnamese and returning soldiers helped to popularize the sandwich in the West, especially in the United States, Canada and Australia.

An urban banh mi cart has all the preparations ready to go. (JGA photo)
Drive-by motorbike riders order banh mi from a mobile kitchen in downtown Buon Ma Thuot. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

6 thoughts on “32. Just Give Me the Bread!

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