History of the Banh Mi

No one comes to Vietnam without trying the infamously flavourful Banh Mi Sandwich. The taste is beyond that of any sandwich you’d eat in any Western Nation. And we have the ultimate guide. 

Be prepared for a little rumble in your stomach and eye-watering images of Vietnam’s most delicious cultural export. 

What is a Banh Mi?

Essentially it is a crusty baguette with fillings. The fillings can be anything from pickled local vegetables and roast pork to chunks of meatballs in a tomato sauce. Rather than have a defined set of Banh Mi rules, the Vietnamese have experimented and perfected a number of different varieties. With each local Banh Mi street chef a master of their own recipe. 

So, where does the Banh Mi come from? What are the classic Banh Mi sandwich types? And why do people love eating Banh Mi?

Famous Vietnamese street food – Banh MI @ xuanhuongho / Getty Images

A brief history of the Banh Mi

The banh mi is a style of bread originating from France mixed with Asian fillings. When the French invaded Vietnam and the Indochina region in 1887, the French couldn’t cope without their favourite snack: the banquette. 

So flour was imported by the shipload in the mid-nineteenth century. Ham or pork was locally cured to French tastes. Cold cuts were developed to satisfy the European palette. The cheese was imported, then eventually produced in farms around the South of Vietnam.

Local pate chaud was also produced, along with European style jams. The flavors became a part of French Indochina and it’s culture. The Banh, or Pain, is the Vietnamese name for bread. They called it Banh Tay, or foreign bread. It was considered a delicacy and an expensive one.

Though initially brought in by the French to satisfy their community, it was crafted by various ethnic and geographical communities across Vietnam, eventually becoming claimed by the Vietnamese as a cuisine of national pride. 

The Banh Mi sandwich has had quite the culinary journey through Vietnam during the 20th and 21st Centuries.

How did the Banh Mi become Asian?

The 20th Century was a turbulent time for Planet Earth. Both World Wars changed the very nature of the Banh Mi in Vietnam. Transport problems led to issues of importing and exporting goods. Ingredients were modified, so the Banh could still be produced. This led to a change in the production of the baguette using rice flour. This was the same flour that produced noodles. Hence, the name Banh Mi, or bread made with a mix of wheat and rice flour.

The 1950’s changed the idea that the Baguette must stay completely European. Mass production over time made bread to be as cheap as rice or noodles. Mass-produced cheese and mayonnaise were available for use. Pate and meats were cured with Asian seasoning. Vegetables, such as carrot and radishes were sliced and pickled. Add fresh cucumber and cilantro, and you had the first Banh Mi Sandwiches in Saigon.

The Vietnamese sandwich was poised to become the legend that it is today. Hoa Ma was one of the first bakeries in Saigon. Hanoi began to sell them from baskets on bicycles. The Banh Mi revolution had begun.

Banh Mi Sandwich- basic ingredients

Nowadays, most Banh Mi vendors have a basic practice to form the sandwich. These are listed below:

  • A roll of warm crusted bread (rice or wheat flour or 50% of both)
  • A filling or fillings (cold cut slices / grilled meat / cheese / eggs / tofu)
  • Pickled vegetables (carrots/daikon or white radish, usually stored in boiled white vinegar, sugar and salt and left for a few hours or days)
  • Fresh vegetables (cucumber slices / cilantro / chilli)
  • Spread (Mayonnaise / margerine/ cheese)
  • Condiments (e.g. Soy sauce/ fish sauce/ chilli sauce)

Without the basic elements, it is difficult to say it’s the real deal. This is a Vietnamese Sandwich after all, not a baguette from France.

Making a Banh Mi – step by step

  1. The bread comes out of the oven
  2. The bread is cut in half
  3. The spread is applied to the bread.
  4. After that, the condiments are sprinkled onto the spread.
  5. The pate is applied to the bread. Some prefer an alternate bit of mash, such as smashed avocado
  6. The main filling (s) are placed on top, in slices, shreds or chunks
  7. These are topped with pickled vegetables
  8. Fresh vegetables are stuffed into the banquette

The Banh Mi is placed into wrapping, ready to serve. Voila, Bon Appetit!

The making of Banh Mi @ xuanhuongho / Getty Images

Obviously, all bakeries and vendors add their own twist to this Vietnamese sandwich. A saturated industry such as this requires a niche to have a culinary edge in the market.

The fillings differ according to specific styles produced. The Vietnamese sandwich caters to all tastes and specific dietary requirements. There’s a Banh Mi for every occasion nowadays. 

The Vietnamese Sandwich – options available

The traditional banh mi started as a meat-filled banquette with Asian flavours. Most are filled with pork, chicken and/or pate. Beef and other meats have been introduced in recent years.

Here is a list of the popular local varieties. Most are pork-filled, though the Vietnamese sandwich can offer different kinds of fillings.

The meat sandwiches – grilled, fried and cold cuts.

Most traditional varieties are sold at almost any Vietnamese Bakery or Banh Mi shop. Stalls sell 1-2 kinds, usually pork filling. Each area of Vietnam has its own preferred vendor.

They are served for lunch, or as a delicious and filling snack. This is Vietnamese street food the locals love to eat.     

  • Bánh mì Đặc Biệt – This is the house special. Usually one or more filings such a grilled meat or cold cuts, cheese plus the set with a special take on it. Some offer all homemade fillings, such as Huynh Hoa on Le Thi Rieng, others offer more bespoke varieties to suit their communities
  • Bánh mì thịt nguội – This is usually made up of 2-3 kinds of pork cold cut slices, usually fresh. Big love for the locals, this is one authentic Vietnamese Sandwich. The sliced meats and slices of ham are mixed together with mayo and cucumber added to this traditional Vietnamese Sandwich
A famous but very cheap food for Vietnamese @ xuanhuongho / Getty Images
  • Bánh mì bì (shredded pork sandwich) – shredded pork or pork skin with soy or fish sauce, with pate, mayo, pickles and fresh veg. Can be served with shredded chicken instead of pork.
  • Bánh mì chả or Chả Lụa (Pork Roll) – pork boiled or steam in banana leaves then cooled down and served as sliced pork. The texture is similar to bologna pork meat. Just add the veg and mayo.
  • Bánh mì Xiu Mai (minced pork meatball sandwich) – smashed pork meatballs marinated in a local flavoured sauce, usually with a tomato, fish or soy sauce base. This is the ultimate Subway with pork meatballs. Serve with cilantro, to get the true Vietnamese flavor.
Traditional vietnamese breakfast dish called Banh Mi Xiu Mai @ Makidotvn / Getty Images
  • Bánh mì xá xíu (Pork sausage sandwich) – This is caramelised chopped up pork meat ‘char siu’Chinese style. It is marinated with Chinese seasoning and grilled on a stove pan. Add this to a baguette and this food becomes street food fav.
  • Bánh mì thịt nướng (barbecue pork sandwich) – A very popular Vietnamese Sandwich for meat lovers. This is a grilled pork belly or grilled pork shoulder with the standard Vietnamese marinade infused into the pork beforehand. It’s an authentic style and one of the true original Banh Mi from the 1950s.
  • Bánh mì gà nướng (grilled chicken sandwich) – This is marinated grilled chicken with East Asian seasoning, topped with pickled fillings, fresh chilli and cilantro. The chicken is sliced and served on a hot, crispy baguette.
Closeup photo of chicken Banh Mi on white plate- Vietnamese cuisine @ SamuelBrownNG / Getty Images

The pescatarian and vegetarian Banh Mi

For any who love to eat fish, or substitute for non-meat eaters:

  • Bánh mì cá mòi (sardine sandwich) – This is a traditional pantry style roll. It is a can of tinned sardines which are warmed in a pan, then served with all the trimmings.
  • Bánh mì chả cá (fish patty sandwich) – Fried fish cakes placed into a baguette then served with Sriracha sauce, seasoning and carrot/daikon pickles with veg.

The vegan Vietnamese sandwich

  • Bánh mì chay (vegan sandwich) – This is usually eaten twice a month during the full and half-moon celebrations. Most Buddhist followers have a vegan day twice per month. They have these standard fillings:
  • Solid or shredded tofu
  • Vegan protein substitute meat (cold cuts)
  • Hearty veg such as cauliflower or beetroot.

The pickled vegetables, carrots and daikon use vegan white vinegar. Everything in the sandwich is vegan. This is really worth a try. The flavors can be as good as any other Banh Mi around.

The modified original Banh Mi Sandwiches (from Colonial France)

These are the original baguette fillings that were consumed in the late 19th and early 20th century, usually for breakfast.

  • Bánh mì pa-tê (Pate sandwich) – Pate is usually served as part of the Vietnamese Sandwich, though it can be served as one filling. Usually, pork-based pate is served, though there are various flavors available. A seasoned vegan-based pate has really hit the streets with force recently.
  • Trứng Chiên/trứng ốp-la  (Fried Egg/ omelette) – Either fried eggs or an omelette cooked and served with pickled vegetables, fresh cucumber and soy sauce. The Vietnamese style can be replaced with a more basic egg, bread and margarine / soft cheese if required.
  • The one with butter/ margarine and peanut butter/jam – This is the basic baguette people from France missed the most back in the day. A basic roll served with butter, jam and peanut butter. Sometimes, this is served as breakfast with a fried egg.

Banh Mi – The worldwide evolution

This isn’t just street food, this is uber-street food. The banh mi started from colonial origins. It was originally available to the elite only. After changes in circumstance during the 20th century, the banh mi became food for the masses. The baguette quickly became Vietnamese food after a native touch was applied to the snack.

Cold cuts and sliced ham once served to ex-pats gave way to suit the local palette. Pork belly or meatballs, sliced chicken and pork, in addition to different types of fillings aroused the tastebuds of the Vietnamese people. The banh mi and it’s diverse range of flavors became a favorite. The filling, complimented with pickled carrot and daikon, along with fresh cucumber and cilantro, made the banh mi a must-try for any overseas visitor.

The banh mi varieties for the foreigner

It just can’t be an authentic banh mi without adding at least one item from the list mentioned earlier in the post. The French-Vietnamese fusion of a sandwich does have a few varieties however and they come in many flavors, while sticking to the general preparation rules.

Swedish meatballs and Italian style meatballs have been introduced into the banh mi in recent times. Cured Iberian or parma ham has been added to the selection of the cold cuts. Another introduction is the version of British and American style roasted meat, such as lamb, beef or chicken. Slices of roasted meat replaced the traditional versions you see in most stalls.

Mayo is mixed with other condiments such as mint sauce or mustard. Alternative spread such as avocado or smashed chutney replaces the pate. Mushrooms and cauliflower have also become the main filling for the banh mi in places.

The food is suitable for eating anytime of a day @ Bonnie_Phan / Getty Images

And no, these aren’t all homemade and only available in other countries, like Mr lee’s in the US. It is possible to find options like this in Vietnam. Banh Mi 25, around the Old Quarter in Hanoi, has options to suit every sandwich lover. Expect to pay a little extra than you would at a standard bakery. These are premium sandwiches.

The Europeans love a sandwich. The Vietnamese made an East-Asian sandwich that people love. The varieties of pork, the succulent cold cuts, the soft pate spread mixed with the set mayo and crunchy pickles on a crisp and crusty warm baguette. This is the best Vietnamese snack. Time to go, as I think I need one now. Writing this post has left me famished. A Vietnamese meatball banh mi sub coming right up!

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