Bánh mì in Vietnamese means generally bread; bánh meaning bread and mì meaning wheat and/or spelt.
French Indochina and the Indo-Chinese Federation existed between 1887-1954. It’s capitols were Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City; Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh), Hanoi (Hà Nội), and Da Lat (Đà Lạt). It bears a less than unusual story about colonialism by a European nation being France, exploitation of resources, heavily taxed locals, enforced quota consumption of alcohol and opium. The region of French Indochina consisted of Vietnamese provinces; Tonkin (Bắc Kỳ, which holds the current capitol of Vietnam, Hanoi), Annam (Trung Kỳ), Cochinchina (Nam Kỳ) together with Kwangchow Wan (Kouang-Tchéou-Wan), Cambodia and later Laos.
I’m not much of a history buff so I’ll keep that basic.
The bánh was created during that time, which became a single serving baguette that is made with a combination of wheat and rice flour, making it lighter in consistency. There are professional bakeries that supply bánh mì shops so there need not be any baking on the premises.
The sandwich that is also generally referred to as the bánh mì is usually filled with meat and pickled vegetables. Vietnamese diasporas within the USA have been making these sandwiches for a while. In the USA they are referred to at Vietnamese po’ boys or hoagies (like a hero sandwich). In Vietnam, bánh mì is a popular breakfast food.
They can be filled with these kinds of meat/fish or substitute:
Chả lụa: Vietnamese sausage
Steamed or roasted pork belly
Pork liver pâté
Cha’i Pow Yu: Mock duck (a gluten based product)
Chicken and/or pork floss
Head cheese: terrine of meat from the head of a calf, cow, sheep or pig, set in aspic
Fried or scrambled egg (chicken’s)
Grilled pork patties
Vegetables dressed with nước mắm (made with lime juice, sugar fish sauce, etc) added can be:
Shredded fresh or pickled daikon
Fresh sliced jalapeño
Bánh mì can be dressed with a drizzle of soy sauce or that nice French mayonnaise (or is it Spanish?) mixed with butter.
These sandwiches are referred to as Bánh mì Sài Gòn as the origins of variations are usually Saigon and there are loads such as:
Bánh mì thịt nguội or Bánh mì đặc biệt: meaning ‘Special Combo’; Vietnamese baguette filled with head cheese, grilled or roasted pork belly, Chả lụa, pork liver pâté, cucumber, carrots, etc.
Bánh mì thịt: popular version; Vietnamese baguette filled with thịt, translates to meat so a combination of meats (pork belly or grilled pork, grilled chicken, etc).
Bánh mì pâté chả thịt: version of Vietnamese baguette filled with Chả lụa, pork liver pâté and meat (pork belly or grilled pork, grilled chicken, etc).
Bánh mì xíu mại: version of Vietnamese baguette with pork meatballs.
Bánh mì chay: vegetarian version of Vietnamese baguette filled with seitan or tofu, not usually served on the street but in restaurants or at a Buddhist temple during festivities.
And so forth. There’s some spots in the USA that are serving these sandwiches. Such as the Bánh Mì Saigon in New York City’s Chinatown which opened in 1989. Apparently shares the space with a jewelry store.
There’s even a sweet version: Bánh mì kẹp kem, the light Vietnamese baguette filled with scoops of ice cream and crushed peanuts.
Apparently Ba Xuyên in Brooklyn (I want to say Borough Park but it’s kind of on the border of Sunset Park) has gotten the best reviews. Inexpensive and the way it’s supposed to be in terms of preparation and the proper bánh (remember, rice and wheat flour baguette), is the word.
There are large Vietnamese diasporas in Los Angeles, California; Houston, Texas and Orlando, Florida so looking towards those cities for highly regarded bánh mì shops we started to find that they’ve gone a bit fusion with the thit (remember, meat). We found short rib, rib eye beef, Tocino (Filipino caramelized salt-cured pork), brisket, BBQ pork, pork shoulder,
It all looked and sounded amazing (sorry, I can’t be all over the USA to taste these, this is an introduction and research project!) But what was a bit worrisome was the bánh. They’re f*cking with the bánh! Some had the nerve to use ciabatta. It’s not French OR Vietnamese. But we’re talking kind of fusion so..
In Houston, Texas there’s a cafe called Nguyễn Ngô French Café that got a very good recommendation from Zagat’s. It’s in Houston’s Chinatown on Bellaire Boulevard.
Have you seen enough to drive you out of the house in search of a Bánh mì shop?