My glorious Citizens of TFD Nation! Attend and pay heed as the Swami of Sandwiches, the Viceroy of Vietnamese Cuisine – YOUR TFD! – has at last gathered all the elements together to create the Philosopher’s Stone of Transmutative Alchemy, enabling Me to share the steps to creating the ultimate bánh mì sandwich! As always, My ruthless authenticity is in full sway throughout, making this a multi-day, multi-step process that I fully recognize only the most devoted members of TFD Nation will attempt. Fear not, there will be documented shortcuts if you choose to omit or substitute store-bought alternatives to My homemade bánh mì masterpiece!
In Vietnamese cuisine, bánh mì or banh mi (Vietnamese: [ɓǎjŋ̟ mî], “bread”) is a short baguette with thin, crisp crust and soft, airy texture. It is often split lengthwise and filled with savory ingredients like a submarine sandwich and served as a meal. Plain banh mi is also eaten as a staple food.
A typical Vietnamese roll or sandwich is a fusion of meats and vegetables from native Vietnamese cuisine such as chả lụa (pork sausage), coriander leaf (cilantro), cucumber, pickled carrots, and pickled daikon combined with condiments from French cuisine such as pâté, along with chili and buttery mayonnaise. In Vietnam, bread rolls and sandwiches are typically eaten for breakfast or as a snack.
The baguette was introduced to Vietnam in the mid-19th century, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina, and became a staple food by the early 20th century. During the 1950s, a distinctly Vietnamese style of sandwich developed in Saigon, becoming a popular street food, also known as bánh mì Sài Gòn (“Saigon sandwich”, “Saigon-style banh mi”). Following the Vietnam War, Overseas Vietnamese popularized the bánh mì sandwich in countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States. In these countries they are commonly sold in Asian bakeries.
In Vietnamese, the word bánh mì is derived from bánh (which can refer to many kinds of food, primarily baked goods, including bread) and mì (wheat). It may also be spelled bánh mỳ in northern Vietnam. Taken alone, bánh mì means “bread”, but particularly the Vietnamese baguette, or the sandwich made from it. A folk etymology claims that the word bánh mì is a corruption of the French pain de mie, meaning soft, white bread. However, bánh or its Nôm form 餅 has referred to rice cakes and other pastries since as early as the 13th century, centuries before French contact.
Many restaurateurs, chefs, and food companies unfamiliar with the term misunderstand bánh mì to refer to the fillings (particularly the pickled radish and carrot) rather than the bread and sandwich, resulting in the term being incorrectly applied to bowls, soups, salads and other inapplicable foods.
The word bánh mì, meaning “bread”, is attested in Vietnamese as early as the 1830s, in Jean-Louis Taberd’s dictionary Dictionarium Latino-Annamiticum. French colonists introduced Vietnam to the baguette, along with other baked goods such as pâté chaud, in the 1860s, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Northern Vietnamese initially called the baguette bánh tây, literally “Western bánh”, while Southern Vietnamese called it bánh mì, “wheat bánh”.
Nguyễn Đình Chiểu mentions the baguette in his 1861 poem “Văn tế nghĩa sĩ Cần Giuộc”. Due to the price of imported wheat at the time, French baguettes and sandwiches were considered a luxury. During World War I, an influx of French soldiers and supplies arrived. At the same time, disruptions of wheat imports led bakers to begin mixing in inexpensive rice flour (which also made the bread fluffier). As a result, it became possible for ordinary Vietnamese to enjoy French staples such as bread. Many shops baked twice a day, because bread tends to go stale more quickly in the Vietnamese climate. Baguettes were mainly eaten for breakfast with some butter and sugar.
Until the 1950s, sandwiches hewed closely to French tastes, typically a jambon-beurre moistened with a mayonnaise or liver pâté spread. The 1954 Partition of Vietnam sent over a million migrants from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, transforming Saigon’s local cuisine. Among the migrants were Lê Minh Ngọc and Nguyễn Thị Tịnh, who opened a small bakery named Hòa Mã in District 3.
In 1958, Hòa Mã became one of the first shops to sell bánh mì thịt. Around this time, another migrant from the North began selling chả sandwiches from a basket on a mobylette, and a stand in Gia Định Province (present-day Phú Nhuận District) began selling phá lấu sandwiches. Some shops stuffed sandwiches with inexpensive Cheddar cheese, which came from French food aid that migrants from the North had rejected. Vietnamese communities in France also began selling bánh mì.
After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, bánh mì sandwiches became a luxury item once again. During the so-called “subsidy period”, state-owned phở eateries often served bread or cold rice as a side dish, leading to the present-day practice of dipping quẩy in phở. In the 1980s, Đổi Mới market reforms led to a renaissance in bánh mì, mostly as street food.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese Americans brought bánh mì sandwiches to cities across the United States. In Northern California, Lê Văn Bá and his sons are credited with popularizing bánh mì among Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese Americans alike through their food truck services provider and their fast-food chain, Lee’s Sandwiches, beginning in the 1980s. Sometimes bánh mì was likened to local sandwiches. In New Orleans, a “Vietnamese po’ boy” recipe won the 2009 award for best po’ boy at the annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival. A restaurant in Philadelphia also sells a similar sandwich, marketed as a “Vietnamese hoagie”.
Bánh mì sandwiches were featured in the 2002 PBS documentary Sandwiches That You Will Like. The word bánh mì was added to the Oxford English Dictionary on 24 March 2011. As of 2017, bánh mì is included in about 2% of U.S. restaurant sandwich menus, a nearly fivefold increase from 2013. On March 24, 2020, Google celebrated bánh mì with a Google Doodle.
My version of the ultimate bánh mì incorporates a freshly-baked Vietnamese-style baguette, homemade Vietnamese ‘ham’ made from pork belly, homemade pork roll, homemade liver pâté, pickled vegetables, herbs, and homemade garlic mayo in the true Viet-style. I will teach you how to make all of these using the trademark TFD philosophy of ‘zero-compromises’, but feel free to just buy store-bought versions of any of these if you just want a quick fix! I won’t judge you…much. 😉
You’re going to need a fair number of days to go through all this preparation – so, gird your culinary loins and join me as we create the ULTIMATE bánh mì sandwich! The more outré ingredients you will need include:
- Bread Flour
- Dough Improver
- Fish Sauce
- White Peppercorns
- Tapioca Flour
- Alsa Single-Acting Baking Powder (do NOT substitute any other variety or brand!)
- Red Bean Curd
- Banana Leaves
- Plastic Twine
- European Maggi Seasoning – it tastes much better than the American brand
The amounts will let you make several largish bánh mì, so invite friends and family over to enjoy this masterpiece recipe with you My Citizens – you will NOT regret this decision or the work you will have put into the making of these delectables sandwiches of paradise! If you’re in a hurry, just substitute store-bought baguettes, pâté, Parisian-style ham and Kewpie® brand mayo (like mine, made only with egg yolks) with minced garlic added in for the homemade Viet-style garlic mayo version I call for!
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