Forever fans of the crispy baguette, pork pâté and pickle combo, we delve into the fascinating history behind this beloved dish and the endless reasons this sandwich combo tugs at heartstrings and taste buds far and wide.
An ode to bánh mì
By that we mean you can still find this tasty sandwich in Sydney – a city of over-priced everything – for a friendly $5. Cheaper than a McSomething meal (healthier and tastier, too), the roll is accessible to all sorts. At Sydney institution Marrickville Pork Roll, for instance, you’re guaranteed to find a colourful queue of international students, hipster types, tradies in hi vis, and even a suit or two. Sure, “cool Viet” cafes will jack up the price to double digits (a crime, IMO), but true bánh mì devotees know that hole-in-the-wall establishments and good-old Vietnamese bakeries are the only way to go.
In the west, we’re most familiar with bánh mì thịt nguội or bánh mì thịt (pork roll). Textural and full of punchy tastes, each bite is crunchy, meaty, tangy and fresh. The sambo starts with crusty baguette made of flour and, traditionally, a touch of rice flour. Next, the bun is moistened with mayonnaise, then layered with pork, pâté, crisp pickled vegetables – usually carrot and daikon – and sprigs of coriander, cucumber sticks and spring onion. Oh, and the daring always order chilli.
Let's break it down, put it all back together, then eat it with glee.
Bánh mì is a textural masterpiece with each element playing its role beautifully. You've got the herb-y freshness, the pickle crunch, the chilli hit, the meaty richness, and a healthy squirt of mayo to moisten everything up. Plus there's that crispy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside baguette.
A French-Vietnamese fusion, the sandwich – as we know it today – was first constructed in Saigon in the 1950s. But the extended tale of how bánh mì came to be is one of xenophobia, war and sheer entrepreneurialism.
The French ruled Vietnam, then known as French Indochina, from the late 1800s until the mid-20th century. Hungry for Gallic gastronomy, the colonisers shipped in flour to make breads and pastries as wheat crops were stunted by Vietnam's harsh climate. Imports were, predictably, expensive, so only the French expats could afford bread, while the Vietnamese stuck to traditional rice. Xenephobia (stretching both ways) deterred the two cultures from sharing culinary knowledge or customs. In fact, it wasn't until the First World War, when Vietnamese soldiers fought for France, that Gallic foods, such as baguettes (bánh tày), became known and eaten among Viet locals. The simultaneous departure of French soldiers from the country also left an oversupply of European foods, which were suddenly affordable for the middle-classes.
Well, the French custom of of "casse-croûte" – a light meal of baguette, cold meats, pâté, cheese and butter – was adopted by the Vietnamese following World War One... with a few twists. Rice flour was added to the bread mix thanks to its availability and the difficulties surrounding wheat importation; butter was swapped for mayo (a safer spread given the extreme heat); and pickled vegetables were added to pad out the sandwich as meat remained costly.
But it was savvy businessman Mr. Le who truly reinvented the wheel. First, he shortened the baguettes to 20 centimetre buns, which were more affordable to the masses. Next, he noticed diners didn't have time to linger, so he inverted the French-style open sandwich to make a sandwich with ingredients inside. These changes might seem simple, but they led to a French-inspired Vietnamese classic that's attracted a cult following all around the globe.
So bánh mì that's how we love thee.
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