WHAT IT IS
Western sandwich with Asian appeal. Banh mi is the Vietnamese word for bread. Banh mi only means bread. but over time, the sandwich itself has come to be known as banh mi. In it’s simplest definition, it’s a pork roll: a bit of meat and condiments inside a French style baguette. Typically eaten for breakfast, it is also eaten as a snack irrespective of the time.
Banh mi is a light crumbly crispy baguette. It is sliced in the middle, spread with butter and pate, meat, cilantro leaves, pickled vegetables, cucumber, soy sauce, and a fried egg. You can change up any of the components to your preference. Your first bite is usually the perfectly crumbly and crusty exterior of the baguette. The inside of the baguette is usually soft, and all the ingredients have settled in beautifully. The flavor changes with every bite, and that’s what makes it the best sandwich in the world. It’s the perfect example of fusion food, of the french and vietnamese cuisine coming together beautifully.
How this sandwich came to be is a source of Vietnamese conflict and culture and a story that spans over 100 years.
First, some history about sandwiches themselves. The 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montague would always ask for cold cuts of meat between two slices of bread. He ate this because he wanted to eat a meal he could hold and eat in one hand without having to get up from his gambling table. Who knew that one fellow’s gambling addiction would create one of the most convenient and comfort foods in the world: the humble sandwich.
In 1859, the French arrived in Vietnam, to ruin the fun like they always do. While Vietnam was a French colony, the French introduced many European foods here: breads, baguettes, pastries, pate, processed meat and cheese of many varieties. But these were only for the French people themselves, they considered bread and cheese and meat to be upper-class food that kept them strong; while rice and fish for the poor and the weak. Through two world wars, the supply chain of European food to Vietnam was broken and the stark differences in the two cuisines began to mingle.
Around the 1950s, bakeries in Saigon started serving baguettes along with a platter of different types of meats, cheeses, butter and pate. But to make it more value for money, (something the French would know nothing about) they introduced vegetables: fresh coriander, sharp red chilies, pickled carrot, radish and cucumber. They changed the butter for mayo, which is more sustainable in the Vietnamese heat. And instead of serving it on a plate, they put the ingredients inside a baguette, and off they went, eating on the go.
And that is what the banh mi is essentially today, a baguette with fillings ranging from pork, chicken, even tuna, to tofu. Sometimes a gooey fried egg is thrown in for good measure. But what really pulls it all together is the sour tang of the pickled veggies, the fresh hit of coriander, the coolness of the cucumber, and the sharp smack of the red chilly and a hearty drizzle of soy.
HOW IT’S MADE
The baguettes are baked fresh every day. If you’re an early riser, you’ll see men and women on motorbikes zooming around carrying dozes of baguettes. The baguette is sliced through the centre. Then buttered. Or spread with mayonnaise. Then smeared generously with liver pate. And then you pick your protein component: ham, roasted or bbq chicken, grilled pork, pork skin, or tofu. Add a fried egg if you like. The only constants are red chilies, soy sauce, coriander, pickled carrot and daikon (Vietnamese radish) cucumber and more chili.
HOW TO EAT
Just pick it up and eat it. Add some extra chilies if you want. I always do. Get a glass of that delicious Vietnamese ice coffee to wash it all down.
WHERE TO EAT
Literally anywhere in Saigon. Every few feet there is a banh mi stand. You’ll see so many street carts making all types of Banh mi. Our favourite is a little family run establishment called Hong Hoa in District 1. The whole family runs the little shop and lives on the second floor on the building. Mom and her sisters in charge of the big drums of noodle broth. Grandma watches over the little kids and makes the teas and coffees. The daughters make the banh mi. The men carry stuff around. But they always stop to chat with you. It’s chaotic and cheerful and getting our breakfast banh mi fix everyday is our favorite part of our morning routine in Saigon. It’s worth planning a tip to Vietnam just to eat this sandwich. We’re not even kidding, it was 90% of decision of our decision to spend 2 months in Vietnam. We’re crazy!
Address: 62 Nguyen Van Trang
Open hours: I think they are mostly open during the morning. I arrived at about 8 am, and the banh mi was fresh and delicious, but I think they are closed in the evening
Price: 17,000 VND ($0.80)
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you don’t think the banh mi is the best sandwich in the world, we cannot be friends. #notkidding