Everything You Wanted To Know About Banh Mi

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

As synonymous with Vietnamese food as the country’s signature dish, pho, it turns out banh mi is actually quite a new invention for this very old culture. What, did you think the rice farmers along the Mekong Delta were munching on French baguettes back before the 19th century?

As the WSJ recently examined, the French — who, as you may not be too surprised to learn, often stuck to their own familiar cuisine, even when colonizing countries thousands of miles away — introduced the baguette into Vietnam during their occupation. The new loaves of bread were named banh tay (or “foreign cake”) by the locals and, due to their high price, were eaten only by the rich. Originally just bread, butter and ham or pâté — a very traditional Parisian sandwich — banh mi, as Andrea Nguyen in the NY Times explains, then went through a transformation. “Then, the Saigonese made things interesting.”

Driven by an urge to adapt local tastes to a foreign food, ingredients were added, ranging from cured and cooked pork, lemongrass chicken, egg, crushed pork meatballs, green herbs, sweet pickled vegetables, cilantro, and sliced chili peppers. Stuffed inside a sliced baguette with a healthy dose of mayonnaise, the sandwich enjoyed a renaissance during the ’80’s as Vietnam’s economy grew, finding its way into the streets of the cities as a to-go meal.

Fast forward a couple decades, and the sandwich started to catch on the U.S., with shops springing up around the country. Now, cities like New York and L.A. are brimming with Banh Mi options (here’s a list of 10 places for the best in New York and a list of the best in L.A.), each with their own take on the creation, from homemade baked baguettes to specially-sourced meats. For the best in Ho Chi Minh, try Concierge.com’s tip and head to the street vendor at 37 Nguyen Trai Street (in District 1) where, they promise, the peddler is guaranteed to turn you into a banh mi lover. As if you needed any convincing.

[image by Charles Haynes/Flickr]

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