Vietnamese Banh Mi: A Magical Blend of The West & East Cuisine

Vietnamese Banh Mi: A Magical Blend of The West & East Cuisine

Along with ‘Ao dai’ and ‘Pho’, ‘Banh mi’ is one of three Vietnamese words that has been selected to add into Oxford dictionary. This is not surprising as it is a popular dish not only with Vietnamese, but also with foreign tourists. And since 2018, when Miss H’Hen Niê brought a Vietnamese banh-mi-shaped outfit to a world beauty contest, this rustic dish has become even more popular with friends from around the world.

A loaf of meat banh mi and a cup of iced milk coffee are an indispensable pair for many people’s favorite breakfast, that you can easily see at any sidewalk cafe in Vietnam! People love it probably because of the simplicity and comfort of the dish, especially for the morning coffee fanatic. You do not need to visit a restaurant for breakfast and then to a coffee shop for drink, but just pull into a banh mi cart along the way to have a nutritious mobile meal. Even an empty banh mi (without the filling) or a sweet banh mi has enough energy for some people.

In this article, the banh mi referred to is the baguette – the most common type of baked bread; to distinguish it from other types of bread such as sandwiches, burgers, whole wheat breads, cereal breads; and other bread variations such as semi-baked breads, steamed breads, melted cheese sandwiches, stick breads, kebabs, chamomile buns…

So where does Vietnamese banh mi come from

It is strange that wheat – the main ingredient of wheat flour is not grown in Vietnam. It has been planted along Nile river since the beginning of Egyptian agriculture; and therefore, the bread is also said to have originated from there. However, it was not until the French invented their own way of making bread that bread became famous. And along with their colonial conquest, bread (and French pastries) were introduced to other countries, including Vietnam.

In Vietnam, bread recipes have gradually changed over time to meet local tastes and storage conditions. Therefore, Vietnamese banh mi no longer carries the original of French baguette, but nowadays there are still many places producing bread according to French recipes to serve Western customers.

What is different from Western baguette

Compared to French baguette, Vietnamese banh mi is usually shorter, wider and more hollow. And this difference continues to depend on different regions. For example, the Central and Northern banh mi are usually smaller and thicker than the one in the South. It is often joked that this is due to the ‘generosity character’ of the Southerners – the banh mi is bigger to accommodate more filling!

To create the loaves of banh mi with different sizes (large, small, long, short) and textures (solid, hollow, soft, hard), the bakers has to change the recipe and the way it is made. In the old days, when bread was only naturally fermented, people would change the rate of yeast and the incubation time. Now in addition to this step, there are the assistance of various emulsifiers/additives to reduce the incubation time and creating the desired loaves. And due to the regional tastes as mentioned above, there are also corresponding additives in the market for each regions. For example, the Northern banh mi additives will have the added function of making the crust thicker and crispier.

Western baguette is usually cut into slices and eaten with butter, cheese, ham, jam … This is also the reason why the Western baguette is usually smaller and thicker, especially the crust is usually thicker and chewier. This is to ensure the baguette slices don’t crumble and retain their shape after cutting.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese banh mi is sliced along the body and kept the whole loaf, so the crust needs to be thin and crispy to get a ‘sweet’ cut. Because of this, Vietnamese banh mi should only be eaten within a few hours from baking, after that banh mi will no longer crispy and the crust will be wrinkled due to the shrinking of the empty intestine. The old banh mi if being warmed (re-baked) for too long will get dry and hard. So usually people will not eat the old one, but will make use of it for the butter-garlic or the oil-onion breads. Another use of the old banh mi is that it can be used as an ingredient for Vietnamese meatball to create the delicious and chewy balls.

What makes Vietnamese banh mi special and famous

Bánh mì kẹp thịt - Vietnamese banh mi

In fact, Vietnamese banh mi is also famous for its own dishes with stewed beef or with the meatballs as it is in Da Lat. But the most popular and talked about is still the meat banh mi – usually with the crispy roasted pork which is chopped into the small pieces. But what makes the most obvious difference is the sauce – a thicken mixture and salty enough so that when being spread into the banh mi, it will not wet the loaf and seep it out. There is no specific recipe or method for making the fillings and sauces, and this makes the variety and interesting for Vietnamese banh mi.

It is not surprised if you see the long lines of people waiting in front of banh mi Phuong in Hoi An, or banh mi Huynh Hoa in Saigon. Sometimes it’s just because there is a pate or sauce that ‘stole their heart’! Or maybe it is because of a slice of homemade spring rolls or kapok-meat that they can’t find anywhere else… All those ‘possible’ things have made Vietnamese cuisine inherently rich, when combined with banh mi even more.

About Duy Ngo