Whether it’s the classic PB&J or the savory cheeseburger, the sandwich is a lunchtime staple that can be found in any American school cafeteria. As a child of Vietnamese refugees, I grew up with a different kind of sandwich from many of my schoolmates, a sandwich that has made a name for itself as an iconic Vietnamese food: the bánh mì.
“Bánh mì” taken alone means “bread,” but it also refers to the French baguette that is the foundation of the dish and therefore has become the reference to the sandwich. A typical bánh mì (pronounced “BAH-N mee") has Vietnamese meat and vegetable fillings like chả lụa (pork sausage), cilantro, cucumber, and pickled carrots and daikon, sandwiched between French ingredients, like a wheat baguette and a spread of pâté, mayonnaise, or some chili. The magic ingredient that gives the sandwich its umami flavor is a few drops of Maggi sauce (also introduced by the French). The ultimate example of organic fusion between Western and Eastern cultures, the bánh mì is not just Vietnam’s version of something French, but a symbol that embodies Vietnam's history and philosophy.
Many believe the etymology of the name stems from the french term “pain de mie” which translates to “soft white bread.” During the French colonial period, the crispy baguette was introduced to Vietnamese people. At that time, it was referred to as “bánh tây” or “western bread,” and used to make a sandwich exclusive to the wealthy because it was filled with expensive cuts of meat. After the French defeat, Vietnamese sandwich-makers adapted bánh tây to have a more food therapy-focused philosophy of yin-yang (“balanced”) diet, with warming meats and bread contrasted by cooling pickled vegetables, jalapenos, and cilantro, resulting in a sandwich that was refreshing, clean, and never too heavy.
Travel to Vietnam, and these days you can buy bánh mì from any number of street vendors and convenience stores. It can be as dense or as light with fillings as you’d like: Some vendors sell just the baguette with a spread of pâté, while others have multiple variations, one of the most popular is bánh mì đặc biệt (special combo sandwich) which is has an assortment of cuts and veggies.
After the Vietnam War ended roughly 45 years ago, refugees from Saigon (what is now Ho Chi Minh City) began bringing this dish overseas and sharing it with the rest of the world. Today countless cities and towns across North America have their own bánh mì shops or chains. You can find bánh mì south of the border in Mexico, across the Atlantic in cities like London and Paris, and in cities throughout Asia. Yum Brands, the owner of fast food restaurants Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, has even tried its hand at selling the popular street food. Most bánh mì shops in the U.S. will have at least 10 different varieties to choose from, so you’re never short of something different to try.
If you’re hoping to pick up some bánh mì in SF, check these places out:
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Bun Mee offers nine different types of meat and vegetarian bánh mì options, ranging from the plant-based Crispy Tofu to Hanoi-style Crispy Catfish.
An Chi sells a BBQ pork bánh mì, and if you’re feeling extra hungry, add a side of deep-fried imperial rolls (cha gio).
Many Vietnamese cafes offer a combination special sandwich with assorted varieties of sliced pork deli meats and pâtés. Try Cafe Bunn Mi’s version if you’re an adventurous pork lover.
For a limited time during the current health crisis, get Pho Dong Huong’s Grilled Pork bánh mì for just $5 each (“Grilleds Pork Sandwiches”). It’s a great opportunity to support the business.
It may not be your traditional bánh mì, but Co Nam makes a trendy version of the Vietnamese sandwich with FRIED Chinese steamed buns. Adding this to my cart now…
If the story behind bánh mì has gotten you hooked to Vietnamese cuisine, read more about the dish that first put Vietnam on the culinary map of the world, pho.