If you live in or near a major city or a Vietnamese community, you’ve no doubt witnessed the current bánh mì craze. In March of this year, chefs in Washington, D.C., competed in a bánh mì throwdown. In February, readers of The New York Times received the lowdown on where to find some of America’s best bánh mì. Known as the Saigon, Mekong or Vietnamese sub, as well as a Vietnamese po’ boy, hoagie or pork roll, this hearty sandwich has captured the hearts — and stomachs — of chefs and diners around the country.
Bite into a crispy bánh mì and you’ll soon see why people have fallen in love with this traditional Southeast Asian street fare. Made from a long, sliced roll resembling a miniature baguette, the sandwich possesses a light, crunchy exterior that complements its zesty, moist interior.
Inside the bun everything from pâté to sliced ham to grilled pork loin to grilled lemongrass chicken to fried tofu can appear. Dressed with pickled daikon radish and carrots, fresh cilantro, chilies and mayonnaise, this versatile sandwich provides bursts of contrasting flavors and textures with every bite. Costing as little as $2.50 in the U.S., it elevates the status of inexpensive, fast food to a higher, healthier level.
A national favorite
Recently I had the chance to sample this sub on its home turf of Vietnam. No matter the time of day, everyone ate bánh mì. At breakfast the freshly baked baguette might be filled with fried eggs, making it the sandwich known as bánh mì trứng, or with cold cuts, bánh mì thit. Both were topped with do chua (pickled and shredded daikon and carrots), sliced Serrano-like chilies, cilantro, homemade mayonnaise and occasionally a smear of butter.
At lunch or dinner, a bánh mì bi might feature roasted, shredded pork skin, or bánh mì xiú m ạ, pork meatballs smashed down into the bun. While fillings varied from region to region and cook to cook, strong-tasting meats, including whole, grilled small birds and whole sardines, remained the norm.
When I had a hankering for one of these filling sandwiches, I only had to look as far as the nearest street corner. They were sold from carts along every roadway, at ferry terminals, near beaches and outside of markets as well as in cafes and shops. Although born in Vietnam, bánh mì has its roots in French cuisine. During their nearly century-long rule of Indochina, the French introduced both wheat baguettes and sandwiches to Vietnam. It was an introduction that would change Vietnamese cuisine forever.
Vietnamese preferences led to the bánh mì’s evolution
The French colonials’ passion for baguettes stuffed with goose liver pâté, sausages, onions, cornichons and butter greatly impressed the Vietnamese. It prompted the Francophiles among them to create their own, cheaper versions of this French sandwich. Since wheat had to be imported from France and was, thus, quite expensive, Vietnamese bakers made their baguettes from a combination of wheat and rice flour. This cost-cutting alteration resulted in a lighter, crispier baguette, much like the one used today.
Fillings changed too. Pig- or chicken-liver pâté replaced pricey goose liver. Homemade, Vietnamese-style mayonnaise usurped French butter. Locally pickled daikon and carrots pushed out the gherkins. By the 1960s, the original French sandwich had disappeared from café menus in Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia. What remained was the amalgamation of French and Vietnamese ingredients. French-inspired pâtés and baguettes were paired with locally produced cilantro, chilies and do chua to create the uniquely Southeast Asian bánh mì.
What makes a great bánh mì? For Saigon native Luong Vo, who kicked off my sandwich tour in Vietnam, it’s all about the fillings. “It has to be pork liver pâté and French ham — jambon — which has a little fat on it and hasn’t been smoked or salted. You add soy sauce, salt and black pepper at the end for your saltiness,” he says.
For me, though, the quality of the baguette remains key. It has to be fresh — preferably only a few hours from the oven — with a crisp, golden crust, and soft and airy interior. Tough or doughy bread ruins the entire dining experience. Likewise, I find that a thin coating of butter, followed by a light layer of good quality mayonnaise, keeps the baguette moist. These condiments also stop the bread from becoming soggy from the pickled vegetables and other, wetter ingredients.
No matter where you eat, your bánh mì or what you put between the slices of baguette, you’ll enjoy an authentic taste of Southeast Asia with every bite.
Bánh Mì Thit
Makes 2 sandwiches
For the do chua:
For the sandwich:
- In a non-reactive saucepan bring the sugar, white vinegar and water to a boil. Stir to combine, remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
- Place the carrots and radishes in a large bowl and sprinkle the salt over top. Once the vinegar mixture has cooled, pour it over the vegetables, mix together and allow them to marinate for a minimum of one hour or overnight in the refrigerator. You will have roughly 3 cups of do chua to spread on the sandwiches and to serve as a side salad. Before using or serving, drain off or strain the do chua so that none of the liquid remains.
- To assemble the sandwiches, spread the butter, followed by the mayonnaise, onto the interior of the sliced baguettes. Layer the bologna, ham and smoked turkey on top of the dressings. Scatter equal amounts of scallion sticks, do chua, pepper slivers, cilantro and black pepper over the meats. Serve with an optional dash of soy sauce and the remaining do chua.
Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
Photo: A bánh mì cart in Vietnam. Credit: Kathy Hunt