• Jerry Mai's banh mi heo quay from her book, Street Food Vietnam. (Jerry Mai)Source: Jerry Mai
“Why is cheap food a pre-requisite characteristic for ‘authentic’ Asian restaurants?” asks Shop Bao Ngoc owner, Cindy Tran.
Camellia Ling Aebischer

17 Aug 2021 - 3:35 PM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2022 - 4:25 AM

How much would you pay for a banh mi? No more than $8? Now, think about how much you’d pay for a burger from an American restaurant, or a meatball sub at an Italian deli.

The banh mi thit: a soft and crunchy bread roll packed with herbs, chilli, pickled daikon and carrot, pate, mayo, crispy roast pork belly, or a selection of homemade smallgoods. All fresh ingredients and almost always made in-house. It’s arguably the most popular Vietnamese sandwich, but why is this complex meal defined by its quick, cheap and easy status?

“It’s unfair to see other immigrant-owned restaurants feel like they can’t increase their prices because there’s an expectation for it to be cheap,” writes Shop Bao Ngoc owner Cindy Tran in a viral post on her business’ Instagram platform.

On Monday 16 August, Tran’s post created a ripple effect that caused many other Vietnamese business owners to speak up.

Food personality and owner of Melbourne’s Master Roll, Duncan Lu, said in a post that he’s “been screaming this for a while” and wants to know when the community will gain traction on this dialogue.

Lu is an advocate for showcasing Vietnamese cuisine and its many dishes, to sit alongside other comfortably priced and often-cooked Western favourites, such as Italian and French, which are often seen as pricey but valued.

“We’ve witnessed a shift from $8 bowls of pho in the '90s to circa $12 today, but an Italian meal comparable in food cost and labour, such as a penne beef ragu, would easily run out the door for anywhere between $18-28 a serve,” Lu tells SBS.

“We have two meals that display equal quality and quantity, originate from different cultures but have a significant disparity in price.”

Nina Huynh, chef at Sydney bistro Yellow who grew up eating baguettes made by her Vietnamese grandmother says she sees the pricing disparity from both sides.

“I also see that consumers have a choice, and until now [Tran's call to action], they have spoken on what they’ve wanted in their communities. There’s a myriad of reasons why we chose what we want to consume from one business to another.”

Huynh says factors like taste, price, convenience and value have shaped the competitive landscape of Vietnamese eateries.

“We have two meals that display equal quality and quantity, originate from different cultures but have a significant disparity in price.”

In her Instagram post, Tran explains that the ‘cheap’ stereotype of Asian restaurants was born from necessity, stemming from a certain set of social and economic circumstances. She offers her own family’s experience as an example.

“After migrating here from Vietnam in the '90s, my mum began working in sewing factories here because that was one of the few jobs an immigrant with no qualifications could get. Like many others, she worked herself to the ground. And for what? 80 cents a garment?” writes Tran.

“Of course, Viet food had to be cheap back then because our community literally couldn’t afford it.”

The definition of 'authenticity' overwhelmingly set by a Western authority is also called into question by Tran. Consumers and influential figures can be quick to label an eatery ‘authentic’ depending on its décor, pricing and ingredient list, often overlooking the fluidity of cuisine in general.

“I am so glad we are talking about this finally and realising this weird almost comical process on how we’ve managed to navigate a ‘legit’ and ‘authentic’ Asian restaurant,” says Huynh.

“I understand how people perceive the decor and the service etc but even as a kid I understood that the idea was that it was always about the food and feeding people in that community,” she tells SBS.

“I understand how people perceive the decor and the service etc but even as a kid I understood that the idea was that it was always about the food and feeding people in that community."

In her post, Tran writes that banh mi appeared in the 1950s and pho in the 1900s. “Neither are particularly old as far as dishes go, and both emerged out of colonisation; as an amalgamation of French and Vietnamese ingredients and cooking methods.”

Tran argues that each family recipe holds different stories and knowledge, which are all worthy and valid.

Lu agrees with the sentiment that Vietnamese food is not just under-priced but undervalued. “[There’s] an under-appreciation of its broad library of delicacies and its labour-intensive qualities,” he says. “I firmly believe if Vietnamese cuisine was widely cooked in Australian homes, it would promote a shift in how it’s valued.”

He hopes that a shift will allow Vietnamese business owners to feel empowered and reevaluate their revenue models.

Dinner at Duncan Lu's house
Taking the 'street' out of ‘Vietnamese street food’
While Vietnamese food is considered ‘street food’ to many Australians, it’s home food to so many others.

Huynh also advocates for all businesses to operate under a sustainable and profitable model.

“However, I don’t think even we [the Vietnamese community] want to see our cultural cuisine become ridiculously expensive. I think that part of the beauty of something like banh mi and pho is that it is accessible, nutritious, affordable comfort food. Food for the people. 

“If people understood the complexity and process that is undertaken to make pho, or to prepare all the mise en place that goes into a banh mi, it will perhaps change their mind about how they perceive these dishes and how they’re priced. Although all the ingredients are seemingly simple they come together and make something delicious and often irreplicable.”

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