The fascinating history of the banh mi


At first glance, the alley off Cao Thang Street in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) could be mistaken for countless others across this city of eight or so million. Motorbikes zip past shops selling second-hand cellphones, sporty backpacks and shampoo packets. One street vendor serves bun thit nuong (rice noodles with grilled pork), while another – riding a three-wheeled motorbike – touts the refreshing joys of kem dua (coconut ice cream) on a hot day.

The difference is this busy little Saigon alley is hallowed ground for sandwich fans. That’s because the squat, pale-peach building with a rusty tin canopy and faded sign is the birthplace of the sandwich that’s taken over the world: banh mi. And eating one here, at ground zero, comes with a surprise.

But first, what’s a banh mi?

No sandwich really can compare. It’s pure fusion food, where every bite of its complex ingredients of flaky baguette, pickled vegetables, spices, herbs and grilled meats doubles as a lesson in this country’s history and philosophy.

During the French colonial period from 1887 to 1954, Vietnam learned about a lot of new things: coffee, Christianity, the Roman alphabet, cute villas, huge European-style prisons and crispy baguettes. Initially these bread loaves were filled with the priciest of meats, becoming exclusively a rich person’s sandwich known as banh tay, or “western bread.”

Then in 1954, after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnamese sandwich-makers pivoted to yin-yang. That’s what Vietnamese chefs always aim for: balancing “hot” and “cold” ingredients to ensure diners finish feeling happy and healthy. (Locals will tell you, if you go on an exclusive eating spree of, say, mangoes – a rare “hot” fruit – brace yourself for a nasty cough.)

Eating a local banh mi shows how this works.

It begins with the flaky, wheat-bread sheath (mi means wheat). Then dips deeper into the spice of chili, the richness of fried or grilled pork, the savory tang of Maggi sauce (a fermented wheat protein the French brought), a softening mayo and cilantro, and that distinctive crunch of pickled cucumber, radish or carrot. Writer Andrew Lam dotingly summed up each taste as “a moment of rapture.” Amen.