By James Lee – 24th Feb 2021
It was a decade ago, on my first visit to Vietnam, when I initially laid fingers on the scrumptious Bánh mì and its tempting aroma along the streets of Saigon. My first bite experience was a relishing moment, leaving a lasting gustatory impression in me. And even until now, I can distinctly recall the crisp, well-stuffed French baguette with flipped egg (a runny yolk), juicy pork barbeque, fresh seasonal vegetables, and Maggi seasoning sauce that perfectly completes the full flavor and savory blend.
Smitten and hooked by its rich taste, one bite led to another. The momentary introduction blossomed into luscious encounters, and I sought more about Bánh mì. The word directly translates to bread, meaning a baked food containing wheat that could be eaten as breakfast, snack, or even lunch for a light eater. Incredible how it has become a staple and popular street food in an Asian region known for rice and noodles.
Now, to somehow satiate my throes of Bánh mì craving while delightfully reminiscing under MCO (travel ban), I delved further into its fascinating history, how it evolved and spread to different parts of the world. It enchanted me back to Vietnam’s colonial past – at the birth of the local sandwich with true cultural and culinary fusion:
The story began when the French ruled Vietnam during the Indochinese Union in the late 19th century. Livestock and crops (milk, coffee, and deli meats) were introduced to the locals to keep the French diets. Unfortunately, wheat was unable to grow in Vietnam and the French had to ship them from the far West to satisfy their appetite. It came with a high cost. And bread became a luxury food then, creating a separation of social status between the French and locals.
However, the Vietnamese diet dramatically changed during World War I. There were two biggest German-owned warehouses in Indochina seized by the French. It contained plenty of European food and goods that were being brought back to Saigon for consumption. And to support the war efforts at that time, the French soldiers sailed back to their homeland. This allowed the food and goods to flow into the local markets at lower prices, making the luxurious European diet, which most locals never tasted in the past to be available, such as baguettes and cheeses.
At first, the Vietnamese ate bread as the French did – with cold cuts, butter, and cheese until the French defeat in 1954. They began modifying French dishes and came out with their version of the sandwich by using the baguette and adding local traditional ingredients into it when the French finally left. The sandwich became affordable to everyone and was a common sight in every street. Slowly, it evolved to the Bánh mì that we know today, one of the best street foods in Southeast Asia.
Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh is believed to be the birthplace of Bánh mì. In 1954, Vietnam split into two. The migrants from the North moved to the South and a couple (Mr. and Mrs. Le) who created Bánh mì were among them. They operated a Bánh mì business in Saigon believed to be the first to introduce putting ingredients into the sandwich as what they are today. Mr. Le downscaled the size of the baguette, lessened the amount of meat, and replaced it with more vegetables, to further reduce the price and make it economical. This eased the customers (mainly students and workers) to grab and eat on the go as they start their busy day in the modern world. Until today, the Le family is operating the Bánh mì business at Ho Chi Minh City called Bánh mì Hoa Ma. (If you happen to travel to Vietnam after this pandemic, you can include this small restaurant in your itinerary.)
In 1975, after the Fall of Saigon, a huge number of Vietnamese citizens fled to other countries to seek refuge. The diaspora made way for Vietnamese cuisines to spread globally, including Bánh mì. People around the world can now taste Bánh mì in their own country. But the best Bánh mì stays in Vietnam with its pinch of culture and historicity.
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