Banh mi literally translates to “bread” but, in usage, it has become synonymous with the Vietnamese sandwich with meat and vegetable filling — an all-day breakfast staple in Vietnam that is sold on almost every street corner and cafe, and even in fancy restaurants.
Alex and I have been eating banh mi for six days now and we haven’t gotten tired of it. I doubt we ever will. We’ve tried it in different areas of Saigon, some are not as good as others, but the best banh mi we’ve had is sold from a stall right outside the serviced apartment building where we’re staying (where we moved, actually, because our original accommodation was a disaster). Discovering it was quite accidental.
The day we arrived in Saigon, we went straight to a banh mi / bun bao “bakery” that had such good reviews on Google. It was ok but we really didn’t understand what the raves were all about.
Then, we went on a street food walking tour and one of the places that the tour guide brought us to was a banh mi stall. Better than the first banh mi we had but still nothing to drool about.
Two days later, we drove to Cu Chi for a cooking class and, when we were dropped off in front of the apartment, Alex noticed a banh mi cart right beside the entrance.
Since we were exhausted from the whole day cooking class and had no plans of going out for dinner, we decided to try the banh mi. Alex went down and bought two. Except on Sunday when the cart was boarded up, we had been buying banh mi from the same vendor everyday.
Yesterday, after a visit to the History Museum, we bought banh mi again. I asked the vendor if I could take photos. She said yes so Alex and I documented the entire process of banh mi making.
What makes banh mi so special?
It starts with the baguette
In case you missed it in history class, Vietnam was once a French colony. Among the things that the French brought with them was bread.
Unlike its French ancestor, the Vietnamese baguette is smaller, lighter and airier, and the crust is thinner and flaky — so flaky that it makes a sound as it breaks apart and crumbles when you bite into it. When the bread is sliced open, the inside is so soft that when the fillings are piled in and the two halves are pressed together, the inside becomes almost hollow — just perfect to hold the generous fillings in place.
What the exact secret is for the distinctive texture of the Vietnamese baguette, no one knows for sure except that bakers that make them. Some guess it’s the combination of wheat and rice flour in the dough.
The truth is, baguette baking in Vietnam is an industry all its own. Banh mi sellers rarely bake their own baguette. Instead, they buy in bulk from bakers whose business consists of baking baguettes and nothing else.
The liver pate and the mayo
I read that banh mi sellers make their own mayo and they guard their recipes carefully. That might be one of the reasons why some banh mi are better than others.
But, beyond the mayo, there’s the liver pate.
Together, they make a delicious base for the sandwich.
The meat filling
There really is no rule as to what meat goes into banh mi. The default is pork but how the pork is cooked and served varies. It can be roasted or boiled, sliced or shredded.
The meat component of banh mi can be deli style meat too, or chicken or seafood. Note that there is vegetarian banh mi as well.
Eggs are optional unless you order egg banh mi, in which case, the filling is nothing but fried eggs and vegetables.
Only three vegetables go in the banh mi. Pickled carrot and radish (daikon), and fresh cilantro. The effect, however, is like topping the meat with a well-dressed salad (the carrot and radish) that is garnished sparingly but robustly with a highly aromatic and flavorful herb (the cilantro).
Can you imagine the layers of flavor so far? Mayo and liver pate for the base, richly flavored meat, pickled vegetables and herb. You top all that with seasoning (always dark but not plain soy sauce — think, rather, in the context of Worcestershire sauce if you’re a Westerner) and chili sauce.
Now combine all those flavors with the delightful and unique texture of the Vietnamese baguette and you’ve got one hell of a sandwich that will fill your dreams for a long, long time, if not for the rest of your life.
P. S. If you want to try the banh mi that has become our favorite, you will find the cart in front of Green View Serviced Apartments on Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).