Birth of the banh mi

I don’t remember what bar I was in, but an Aussie elbow-bender once observed to me, “Only the Americans know how to make a good sandwich.” Argue with him if you like but, as a student in Spain, a journalist in Oz and a bum in many ports of call, I have found this largely to be true.

Indeed, most of the world makes a pretty simple sanny. In general it’s just a bit of meat and bread and precious little else. I recall in Madrid, when going to lunch between classes, I was dismayed at the paucity of a ham or cheese sandwich that was nothing but the star ingredient on a roll. Hamless cheese and cheeseless ham sandwiches they were. I was shocked at the absence of even a dollop of mustard, a schmear of mayo, and not even the ghost of a pickle, a tired leaf of lettuce or a thin slice of tomato. And no bag of chips. The deli master’s art did not exist in Iberia — nor, it long seemed, anywhere else outside the United States.

But then I came to Vietnam, where sandwiches can be so artful that the term “banh mi” was inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011. (Of course this says nothing about the Englishman’s record vis a vis the sandwich. The Earl of Sandwich himself took it simply as roast beef on a bun.) Here in Vietnam we all know the pleasure to be had from the street-side seller who gives us her (it’s almost always a her) usual best, or lets us pick this and that to our own taste. Rashers of ham, thick spreads of pate, fish cake, roast pork, fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables, herbs, chilli sauce, nouc mam, mustard and mayo b’God, and a triangle of Laughing Cow cheese if you like. And all of that on the uniquely Vietnamese baguette known as the banh mi, with its characteristic thin and crunchy crust without and its lighter-than-air crumb within. The resulting creation is now a banh mi thit, loosely translated as “meat sandwich”.

It was the French Empire that brought the baguette to Vietnam. The local folk originally called the torpedo shaped bread banh tay, which means “western cake”. Later, as they perfected their way of producing it, the name changed to banh mi, meaning “wheat cake”. That should clear up a common confusion about its recipe. Many people think it’s made from rice flour, but, as the name implies, banh mi generally are made from wheat flour. On occasion, as a cost-saving measure, rice flour is included in the dough, but the resulting texture isn’t favoured by most consumers. There isn’t enough gluten in rice flour for the airy crumb, and the Dutch crunch-like crust just doesn’t come off.

In the beginning, the banh tay was an exotic food for the rich. They dipped it in sweetened milk, or used it to sop up French sauces or the gravy in a stew, as they do today. The first written references I’ve been able to find of sandwiches made from banh mi go back to the 1920s. Alas, it was food the Earl of Sandwich would have recognised. Popularised in the north, it was just a snack of meat and bread, usually taken on the go.

But then, as the story goes, an epiphany occurred a few decades later. In 1954 French rule ended, Vietnam was divided, and many northerners, among them shopkeepers and restaurateurs, moved south for the duration. The family of Mrs Nguyen Thi Tinh was among them. They had been purveyors of supplies to restaurants and operators of a small bakery. Arriving in Saigon in 1956 they set about making a living in their old way. Either things didn’t go as planned, or they saw an opportunity, or both. They started selling baguette sandwiches at a little shop on Nguyen Dinh Chieu in District 3. But recognising the southern preference for more merriment in the mouth, more zing, more pizazz, more sugar and spice, they began adding to the simple package. It culminated in the banh mi thit that we know today. And that was where the 2011 entry into OED fame began.

In 1960 the family moved around the corner to 53 Cao Thang Street, where they continue today under the name Hoa Ma. The faithful will tell you that it is the first shop of its kind in the city. Certainly it is the oldest continuous such shop and looks it. By which, of course, I mean it has a lot of character. It’s a very small joint, at the head of an alley. In addition to the super sanny to go, you can get ham and eggs to eat on site. But if you go, go early. They open at 6am and close no later than noon. OED be damned.

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