You might be forgiven for thinking that Vietnam’s only national dish is pho (pronounced fuh not foe). After all, it’s served in almost every restaurant, has been exported to fancy food joints overseas, and there are thousands of recipes, from Aunty Tran’s family specialty to the braised beef joint at the end of the block.
But if trends continue, pho might be dethroned as the food that people first imagine when thinking about Vietnamese cuisine. You might even start to see fancy restaurants offering varieties of this dish on high-end tasting menus. Enter the humble banh mi.
To the uninitiated, banh mi is simply a roll of French bread stuffed with various meats and vegetables and other random condiments – basically, a sandwich. But to those who know a bit about its storied history, the humble creation is a veritable book of modern Vietnam in a single item of food.
The sandwich first showed up in the 1880s, around the same time that France began its expansion of French Indochina. Combined with a few other items – most especially coffee, of which Vietnam produces some of the world’s best, in our opinion – the Vietnamese culinary scene began to change. Banh mi (which translates as wheat bread) was originally very simple, consisting of a loaf of French bread, a bit of butter, ham, or pâté, and was favored by the upper class, or those who wanted to act like they belonged there.
It remained this uncomplicated yet lofty snack until the middle of the 20th century, when a lot of things in Vietnam began to change in a big way. When French rule ended in 1954, Vietnam was in control of its destiny for the first time in a long time. Modifications and adjustments were made to everything from government to education to finance, and food wasn’t far behind. Soon, banh mi was available on every street corner. Cheap, easy to make, and simple to carry, it was easily adaptable to a newly revitalized culture looking to regroup.
In order to spice things up a bit, the Vietnamese took the now-common French meal and added their own twist to it – cilantro, mayonnaise, chilies, and pickled veggies were thrown into the mix, and pork, chicken, and beef were added to the menus to provide a bit of variety. Don’t forget – its popularity was a big deal in Vietnam at the time. This western import had suddenly become a preferred meal for many Vietnamese, whose ancestors would have perished if not for rice, a gift from the gods that had provided sustenance and income for thousands of years. And suddenly this sandwich was all the rage?
In the years since banh mi has undergone an even more dramatic change, acting as somewhat of a middleman between the eastern and western cultures that are constantly influencing each other. Part of its popularity overseas was the exodus of Vietnamese after the Vietnam War, who craved a taste of home in their newly adopted countries. Banh mi restaurants soon started popping up to serve the Vietnamese communities and, increasingly, the burgeoning foodie scene. In areas of the U.S., banh mi were given local names such as the Vietnamese po’ boy and the Vietnamese hoagie.
As it has grown to become a staple of the Vietnamese diet, so has its versatility in satisfying all tastes. You can find banh mi breakfast sandwiches with scrambled eggs and onions, and sandwiches that contain jalapeno, pork belly, cheese, tofu, sardines, or meatballs. You can even find ice cream banh mi – literally a roll of bread with scoops of ice cream stuff in the middle!
As its popularity continues to grow, the sandwich can be found in almost every major city in the world. Most have their own local variations to give it a bit of hometown flavor, but now you know – there’s a lot more to it than just bread, meat, and veggies.