When it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, few dishes are as iconic as the famous Banh Mi. It is the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich and a snack you just can’t miss if you’re heading to the country. Whilst it is easy to get lost in the flavours of this delicious baguette, Banh Mi also has a fascinating history, which has cemented its importance in Vietnam’s evolving food scene.
In this post, guest writer Abhijeet tells us all about his love affair with Banh Mi and why it has earned the title, ‘King of Sandwiches’!
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Last year, I met a bunch of Aussies in Prague, and we bonded well. They were big foodies. I remember discussing different cuisines with them, and a big part of our conversation revolved around a mutual love for Vietnamese street food, and in particular for Banh Mi (Bánh Mì in Vietnamese).
This got me thinking about how much I enjoyed chowing down on a tasty Banh Mi during my time in Vietnam. Whether it was in northern Hanoi or southern Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City); I remember eating Banh Mi every single day and loving it! In my opinion, Banh Mi is right up there with Pho as an essential Vietnamese food and you’d be crazy to miss it on your trip!
What is Banh Mi?
Banh Mi literally translates to bread, meaning a baked food containing wheat. However, this term has also become the go-to name for the famous Vietnamese sandwich, served in a French baguette with a mix of meats and vegetables.
Bánh Mì Ingredients
Banh Mi can be prepared in a number of ways. My favourite variation is known as ‘ga nuong xa’, which is a fusion of grilled chicken, chilli and lemongrass. The crispy bread and crunchy vegetables blend so well with the meat — yum yum!
Despite the number of variations, most Banh Mi stalls make the Vietnamese sandwich with the same core ingredients:
- Crusty French baguette
The bread itself is made of wheat flour, but it can also contain rice flour. You usually have the option of getting your Banh Mi toasted. In my opinion, the Banh Mi must be toasted to acquire the best taste!
A popular condiment in French cuisine, pâté is sometimes added to the Banh Mi, along with mayonnaise and chilli.
- Cuts of meat
Most stalls sell Banh Mi with varying meat options including pork, beef or chicken. It is also possible to buy vegetarian Banh Mi too!
- Pickled carrots
White radishes are often pickled with the carrots in a shredded form. This mix is called đồ chua in Vietnamese.
Also sometimes referred to as cilantro, coriander is a herb that many love to hate. For most, the herb will have a tart citrusy taste but there is a small minority that taste dish soap when they eat it. If this is you, remember to ask for your Banh Mi without cilantro.
Fresh cucumber slices are often included in Banh Mi sandwiches.
- Maggi Seasoning Sauce
Some places use Maggi seasoning sauce to help flavour the Banh Mi. Those from India are usually familiar with this sauce, however, Maggi is easy to buy in mainstream supermarkets across the world.
- Seasonal vegetables
The reason these sandwiches stand out is because of the use of seasonal local ingredients. The stall owners shop twice a day and put fresh vegetables and herbs inside the dense baguettes. The freshness is real, unlike the food in some of the famous fast-food restaurants!
How to Make Bánh Mì
Making Banh Mi is probably simpler than you think. The key is finding high-quality ingredients and bread with the perfect soft interior and crunchy exterior. Check out the video below for a crash course in how to make Banh Mi with grilled pork!
The History of Banh Mi
The French ruled Vietnam from 1887 to 1954 during the Indochinese Union. Back then, it wasn’t practical to send food all the way from France so the French had to adapt. Rather than change their diets, they introduced livestock and crops into Vietnam. This was done to ensure that milk, coffee and other various meats were available for consumption.
Sadly for the French, wheat could not be grown in Vietnam. This meant that bread had to be shipped in, for a hefty price! Owing to the luxury status of bread, it was reserved for only European officials. The Vietnamese locals were deemed unworthy of eating the bread.
World War I marked a significant change for the Vietnamese diet. The two biggest import companies in Indochina were German-owned and they were seized by the French authorities. The contents of these warehouses included a whole manner of European food goods. These were also seized. Once the French left Asia to help with the war effort, these goods made their way to market and suddenly European food was everywhere throughout Saigon. Even better, the discounted prices meant that the locals were finally in a position to afford the European food.
With so many new ingredients available to the people, the Vietnamese started to make their own signature meals and dishes. The most famous of these include the delicious chilled Vietnamese coffee which is served with ice and condensed milk. It’s so delicious that it deserves a separate article of its own! And of course, there was the Banh Mi.
Using the French baguettes, the locals put a traditional Vietnamese twist on the European sandwich by combining both hot and cold elements. Modifying French dishes with local ingredients meant that these foods were more affordable for the masses. This secured the Banh Mi’s status as one of Southeast Asia’s most noteworthy street foods.
The modern Banh Mi as we know it today is believed to be have been born in Saigon. The first to be credited for creating the Vietnamese sandwich were a couple called Mr and Mrs Le. Their family still runs a restaurant selling Banh Mi called Banh Mi Hoa Ma, located in modern-day Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. We have them to thank for this amazing contribution to the Vietnamese culinary scene!
Today, Banh Mi is mainly eaten as a breakfast meal or a midday snack (though I ate it for breakfast and dinner every day and have no regrets) and is considered a staple food all over Vietnam.
Banh Mi Goes Global
Through speaking to my new-found Aussie friends, I learnt that many Vietnamese immigrants who moved to Australia popularised the sandwich through Asian bakeries across the states of New South Wales and Victoria.
Vietnamese cuisine has also grown in popularity across North America and Europe. Whether it comes in the form of a trendy food truck at a music festival or in a high-end shopping mall, you’re sure never to be too far from Banh Mi!
Cost of Bánh Mì in Vietnam
Most stalls selling Banh Mi on the streets of Vietnam charge under one dollar for a sandwich. I don’t know any other food that gives you such high quality for that price! These are particularly great if you have overspent and are looking for cheap but filling food to conserve your travel budget!
Where to Eat Banh Mi in Vietnam
Just like Pho, you can find Banh Mi everywhere in Vietnam. Look out for the street carts which line the roads of all the major cities.
For the best recommendations, always ask a local (those working at your hostel are often a good bet). If you are in an area with a bakery and vegetable market, you have hit the jackpot. You will get a fresh Banh Mi that is of great texture and flavour.
The best Banh Mi I had was at a stall called Banh Mi 25 in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It was right next to the hostel I was staying in. In the same vicinity, Banh Mi 25 has a stall, a cafe with a sitting area and a high-end work relaxing space.
Many travellers also rave about the Banh Mi served at Banh Mi Queen in Hoi An. There is just one thing on the menu here and owner Nguyễn Thị Lộc has been selling it for 50 years! (Recommended by none other than Anthony Bourdain!)
Of course, if you are in Ho Chi Minh, you have to seek out Banh Mi Hoa Ma, for a taste of authentic Banh Mi as it was created by the Le family.
As soon as I am able to, I will head back to Southeast Asia to explore more. There is no doubt in my mind I will make a stop in Vietnam and enjoy way too many Banh Mi!
Header photo credit – Friends Travel Vietnam, who run the Real Hanoi Street Food Tour, a must do when in the capital city!