A Story About Vietnamese Sandwich

Nga Do
Since the Vietnam War ended, Vietnamese have shared much of their culture with the larger world. But many people who fled as refugees could not have imagined that the Vietnamese sandwich, bánh mì, would one day become an international sandwich sensation, a culinary wonder of globalized age. Today Vietnamese people are very proud of Vietnamese sandwich. I would like to tell you a story about Vietnamese Sandwich as well as share the love of this food to everybody all over the world.

1. From French Baguette to Vietnamese Sandwich

The origin of Vietnamese Sandwich is French baguette. Perhaps bread had been imported into Vietname before 1859, but it has become popular since French army attacked and occupied Gia Định city (former name of Ho Chi Minh city). But the bread used to make Bánh Mì is a Vietnamese style French baguette which is made with wheat flour. The bread isn’t overly dense and has light and crackly crust.

Before 1975, government of the Republic of South Vietnam had provided light meals to pupils at primary schools in Saigon. The meals included milk produced by Fore Most company and baguette produced in bakeries in the city. That was a big challenge to baguette bakeries because with traditional French brick ovens, they couldn’t bake enough baguettes. In 1970s, Matador and Anwator electric deck ovens from Japan were used to replace the old brick ovens.

Besides French people, Chinese people produced baguette to sell to Western people who lived in the city. Saigon people also bought this food and ate like a snack. Waiters who worked at restaurants and translators had chance to taste baguette for the first time. Then baguette had become popular amongst officers, students and citizen. From time to time the food had reached countryside and had been sold everywhere. Baguette was considered a valuable gift to family in rural countryside when a member returned home from Saigon. After that, baguette has been sold popularly in Saigon and it has been a favorite of Saigon people. It has been sold at Saigon markets, in baskets on bikes, mobile baskets and at street food stalls.

2. First Vietnamese Sandwich stall in Saigon

Located at crossroads of Cao Thắng street and Nguyễn Đình Chiểu street, a stall with old sign “Bánh Mì Hòa Mã” is the first stall that sold Vietnamese Sandwich in Ho Chi Minh city. The owner are Mr. Lê Minh Ngọc and his wife – Mrs Nguyễn Thị Tịnh. In 1954, they immigrated from North Vietnam to Saigon. These days, there were many bakeries owned by French people. They sold French style baguettes and cakes. Cooled meat was sold separately to eat with the bread according to customer’s request. Mrs Tịnh had worked for a French bakery in Hà Nội so that the couple wanted to start selling bread and cooled meat when they arrived in Saigon. In 1958, Hòa Mã stall was opened at 511 Phan Đình Phùng street (nowadays Nguyễn Đình Chiểu street, District 3). After 2 years, the stall moved to 53 Cao Thắng, District 3 and has been there until today.

At first they also sold baguette and cooled meat separately. Customers ate at the stall or brought home. But their customers were officers, workers, students, pupils who didn’t have enough time to eat at the stall. The owner put pork meat, pork pie and pate into the 1 span long baguette to make it more convenient for students, officers to bring to their universities, working places… The taste of the food was very special. It costed from 3 to 10 VND. The owner called the baguette with cooled meat “cát-cút” (casse-croûte in French) which means super bowl. Nowadays we called it Bánh Mì in Vietnamese and foreigners called it Vietnamese Sandwich. The Vietnamese Sandwich Hòa Mã has been a favorite of many Saigon people and the stall has been always crowded for many years.

3. Taste of Vietnamese Sandwich has diversified

Wheat-flour bread has been the most common source of starch in Western cuisine for a long time. In Vietnamese’s eyes, bread was a snack when it was just imported into the country. It was considered as “steamed rice on the go”. But in recent days, it is number one food on Saigon streets. The interesting change on the standard taste and texture of Bánh Mì surts the fancy and satisfies culinary needs of Saigon people.

There are countless of breads with different shapes and recipes. And there are many ways to eat breads. The classic ways to eat bread are: bread with beef steak, bacon, soup, pate, sausage, scrambled egg, butter, jam… Vietnamese people rarely eat bread like that. We prefer fillings put into the bread. The crust must be crispy, the size must be medium and with less starch. We don’t use Western products such as bacon or sausage as above but our traditional foods such as pork pie and braised pork. People in South Vietnam like eating vegetables and pickles, so that we add some slices of cucumber, carrot and daikon pickles, green onion, coriander, some slices of chili or black pepper, soy sauce and tomato sauce. In addition, we also add pate and butter. At the end, we have a baguette filled with meat, vegetables, pate, butter, spices and sauce. This amazing food is a perfect mix of the tender meat, the fresh vegetables, the sour and sweet pickles and the hot chili. The great flavor has attracted people at all ages.

Besides Bánh Mì with cooled meat, there are others Bánh Mì with various fillings that are mouth-watering: grilled pork, beef pie, fish pie, canned fish, pork floss, stewed organ, beef jerky, char sew, shredded chicken, toasted pork, pork skin strip…

4. Vietnamese Sandwich is sold everywhere and eaten at any time

More and more Bánh Mì has been sold in the city. People eat Bánh Mì everywhere on the streets, at working places, at schools, at home… and at any time of the day as breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper. The reason is that it is not only delicious but also cheap and convenient. It’s a food for all: poor people and rich people. Vietnamese people have created many flavorful recipes of Bánh Mì. Everyday Bánh Mì has been sold at metal rolling carts, street food shoulder poles, street food stalls and in bakeries. This kind of food has become the soul of Saigon.

5. The rise of Vietnamese Sandwich

Is it surprised? For over a decade, we have been proud of Pho which is on every magazine and travel guide. Pho is a symbol of Vietnamese cuisine, Pho is a must when tourists come to Vietnam. But things has been changed for the last 2 years when all foreigners talk about Vietnamese food is Bánh Mì. It has attracted thousands of fans like never before. It is hot topics on newspapers, magazines, travel guides, websites. Iamfoodblog – a famous food blogger has written: “I think Bánh Mì, or Vietnamese Sandwiches might be my favorite sandwich. Bánh Mì is praised in foreign press. Richard Johnson has written a story in Guardian’s travel section, in which he made a list of the best street foods around the world and Vietnam’s Bánh Mì is placed second.

In England, America and other countries, hundreds of Bánh Mì restaurants have been opened. Their names are very Vietnamese: Bun mee, Banh mi My Tho, Kêu, Banh Mi Bay, Banhmi11. Ô Bánh Mì – a famous trademark of Bánh Mì in Malaysia has become a boom. Vietnamese at Ô Bánh Mì is a favorite food of Malaysian. There is a Bánh Mì mobile stall which is well-known in Thailand. Yum Brands, which owns KFC and Pizza Hut opened a Vietnamese Bread restaurant in Texas and named it Banh Shop.

It’s all about Vietnamese Bread. Bánh Mì is a food that blends cuisine and culture. If you have chance to visit Vietnam, don’t miss tasting Bánh Mì – one of the best street foods and you will understand why it’s so famous.

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