Banh mi literally means “bread” though it is often extrapolated to include its sandwich form which is sold on seemingly every corner and in every alleyway in Vietnam’s cities.
Bread was introduced by the French in the 18th century during their brutal occupation of Vietnam. Soon after, the Vietnamese developed a taste for the French baguette and began to pair it with local ingredients including cilantro, fish sauce, and pickled carrots.
Like most national Vietnamese food, each region puts its own spin on the dish, based on local tastes and ingredients.
The classic version, bánh mì thịt nguội, sometimes known as bánh mì đặc biệt or “special combo”, is made with various Vietnamese cold cuts, such as sliced pork or pork bellies, chả lụa, and head cheese, along with the liver pâté and vegetables.
To the delight of early risers, many shops offer a breakfast banh mi – eggs fried sunny-side-up with onions, sprinkled with soy sauce or Maggi sauce, and eaten with a fresh (and sometimes buttered) baguette.
Where the Vietnamese go, the banh mi follows. With one of the largest diaspora communities in the world, banh mi has long been a staple in overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) communities. This group is also known for recreating their close-knit communities in the adopted homelands, cuisine included.
From Paris to Houston, one can find authentic banh mi, albeit with slightly higher quality ingredients than their Vietnamese counterparts. This can be seen in the price difference – in Saigon, the sandwich will only set you back VND15,000 or $.75 whereas the price can rise well above $5.00 in other countries.
After a generation in western society, trendy restaurateurs, have updated the classic bani mi to the point where it loses much of its Vietnamese qualities.
Even as Vietnam adds brands like Starbucks and McDonalds, banh mi is here to stay.