Next time you bite into a Vietnamese banh mi, hear the crunch of the flaky baguette and feel the sweet and sour mix of ingredients dance in your mouth, there’s one thing to note: the banh mi is not just a humble pork roll.
As Anh Nguyen – Museums Victoria research associate and former child refugee – says, the banh mi reveals a powerful story of Vietnamese migration and entrepreneurial refugee ingenuity.
“Food is tied to history,” she says, “so it’s an easy cultural transmitter to show how one culture has integrated into another.”
Nguyen explains that the banh mi was a product of European colonialism in Vietnam in the late-1800s. When the French entered Vietnam, they brought with them their love of bread and influenced local food habits.
Then, with World War One came the importation of European goods into Vietnam. “The Germans were important importers of European goods for bread making into Vietnam. They made the ingredients highly accessible. That’s when local entrepreneurs really started to make [European] food themselves, like bread.”
“Food is tied with history, so it’s an easy cultural transmitter to show how one culture has integrated into another.”
However, there was one problem. “The tropical humidity made it hard for the dough to rise.” The ‘banh mi’ baguette soon developed. It was similar to a French baguette in style but the Vietnamese added rice flour to the wheat flour to make the bread fluffier and lighter than the French variety.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s when the banh mi really developed into the consumer snack it is now. When many Vietnamese refugees fled the communists in the north and moved south in 1954, they moved to a much hotter climate. “The banh mi emerged as a popular food to make over pho from the north because it was so hot in the south.”
Needing to make a new start in a new part of Vietnam, many refugees started selling banh mi in Saigon “because of its economic efficiency as a street food”.
“They used the same enterprising spirit that they used after being pushed out of north Vietnam, having to create some sort of livelihood."
Nguyen explains that a similar thing happened when Vietnamese from the south came to Australia as refugees from the Vietnam War. Vietnamese bakeries were soon established in Australia in the 1980s in the areas surrounding the hostels where Vietnamese refugees first lived like Cabramatta and Bankstown in Sydney and Footscray in Melbourne.
“They used the same enterprising spirit that they used after being pushed out of north Vietnam, having to create some sort of livelihood. So one of the efficiency foods to be produced here was banh mi. It was the first dish in our street food culture to be carried over from Vietnam to Australia.”
Ha Phun, Manager of the Hong Ha Bakery in the Sydney suburb of Mascot, tells SBS her family set up its bakery in 1986 after her dad first immigrated to Australia as a refugee.
She says her dad, an engineer who used to work on ships back in Vietnam, never had any experience of baking when he came out to Australia. “He initially worked in a factory but he was tired of doing shift-work so he wanted something with better hours," says Phun, who’s worked at the family-owned bakery for around 20 years.
Back then, banh mi wasn’t as popular in Australia and there was only one other bakery on the street. Over 30 years later, she says, and how times have changed. Vietnamese bakeries are plentiful and Vietnamese cuisine is a household staple.
“Banh mi is 80 per cent of what we sell here in the bakery. People love banh mi…And I still eat them every day. You have to try them, to test if the seasoning is right. My workers eat them every day as well.”
“Bakeries offering banh mi are also keeping a food culture tradition and artisan skill alive."
“There is an economic benefit for these largely family-owned small businesses,” Darabi says. “We all know small business is the backbone of the Australian economy.”
“Bakeries offering banh mi are also keeping a food culture tradition and artisan skill alive. They provide a distinctiveness and sense of social cohesion in a region. They also help to create an appreciation of immigrant cultures and their contribution to our Australian society.”
Although Phun has taken on the family business, she admits there is uncertainty whether the banh mi-making tradition will continue with her children – first-generation Australians.
“I’m not sure if my kids will love it and want to [take on the family business]. If not, it would be a shame,” says Phun. “We have been established since 1986 and have been so popular selling the banh mi, we don’t want the later generation to miss out on knowing what it tastes like.”
Nguyen says this is a common situation faced by many Vietnamese refugees-turned bakers and banh mi makers.
“Many of the children [or grandchildren] of refugees don’t want to become bakers as it requires really early hours and is hard work,” explains Nguyen.
“It’s not seen as trendy to work in the bakery…It’s seen as going backwards economically: you are doing what your parents did when they came out to Australia – struggle.
“So today, there are fewer bakeries although there are more pho shops and Vietnamese restaurants. Everyone wants to own a restaurant.”
Nguyen is hopeful that first and second generations will slowly gain interest and return to baking. She predicts that they will develop a new style of Vietnamese artisan baking, alongside a modern interpretation of the traditional banh mi.
“The bread crust is crunchy and light. Inside the baguette are textured meats, refreshing carrots and daikons. And everyone recognises the coriander."
But rest assured – the banh mi is too valuable to fade into the background. Its low cost makes it affordable and let’s not forget how tasty it is.
“Banh mi really is a lunchtime snack that has everything. It has warmth and yumminess and provides comfort, and goes really well in Australian weather.
“The bread crust is crunchy and light. Inside the baguette are textured meats, refreshing carrots and daikons. And everyone recognises the coriander.
“It’s like the calling card of Vietnamese food. The banh mi is something that every Australian can access no matter how much money they have.”
Build me a banh mi! Why we love thee and how to perfect it. Check out our guide right here.
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