In September 2022, the banh mi was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Around the same time, CNN travel included the banh mi in the top 23 of the world’s best sandwiches, reflecting its popularity and reputation. Although available worldwide, eating the Vietnamese sandwich in its hometown is something you cannot miss. So, what is there inside this much-loved baguette, and how does it make its way to being recognized on the global culinary map? Let’s find out together.
A brief history of the banh mi
Have you ever wondered what has happened in the last two centuries that transformed baguettes, the so-called “Western bread” at the time, into the banh mi – a culinary hero that marks Vietnam on the global culinary map? Let’s time travel with us to find out.
What is the banh mi?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the banh mi as “a usually spicy sandwich in Vietnamese cuisine consisting of a split baguette filled typically with meat and pickled vegetables and garnished with cilantro and often cucumbers.”
However, for us, who have been eating the banh mi our whole life, it is more than just a sandwich. The banh mi is central to Vietnamese people from all walks of life: it is the first thing we think of in a hurry; it is the most affordable meal for those “low budget” days; it is also the most filling and portable food to take with us anywhere; and of course, it is always in the food list that we proudly introduce to our international friends.
When did the banh mi arrive in Vietnam?
Many Vietnamese historical records cited that the breadsticks, or baguettes, traveled with the French expeditionary force to Vietnam in the 1850s. The ready-baked baguettes, which are the main staple food of the French, were certainly not enough to feed all the soldiers for months at sea; hence, baguettes were probably made on-site wherever the troops settled.
Why is it called the banh mi?
When baguettes first appeared in the North, they were referred to as “Western bread” since, obviously, they were made for the French people. However, in the South, back then, people already called the French baguettes by the name banh mi. One explanation is that, in Vietnamese, “banh” refers to any food made from flour, especially by baking, and “mi” is the shortened form of bot mi – or wheat flour. So, banh mi literally means a cake made from wheat flour. Another hypothesis is that the banh mi resembles the sound of “Pain de mie,” which means white bread in French. Regardless of the reason behind this, the banh mi is now a universally official name for this Vietnamese baguette.
When did the Vietnamese banh mi get its shape?
It is a long journey for the banh mi to come from long, thin, and crusty baguettes to the Vietnamese bread you see today.
When first arrived, the banh mi was a classic French baguette – a long, narrow loaf of bread, and was only eaten at a dining table in Western style. The first attempt to make it was with brick ovens, built in the traditional French style and heated by coal or wood (much resembles pizza wood ovens).
In the 1910s, when World War I broke out, food scarcity happened worldwide. Local bakers had to make changes to the recipes by adding rice flour to make up for the shortage of wheat flour. Adding to that, the way Vietnamese bakers constructed their ovens with local building materials allowed the moisture to stay inside longer. The mixture of wheat and rice flour and the sealed structure of the baking ovens resulted in a softer and airier texture inside while thinner and crustier outside the banh mi.
Following the economic recession, the banh mi was first cut into smaller pieces and then made shorter and smaller to lower the price and to be ready to eat on the way. This significantly marked the transformation in the shape of banh mi, retaining its appearance until the modern days.
How the banh mi became loved by the Vietnamese?
You may expect it or not, in the 19th century, when the banh mi first arrived during the high time of French colonialism, it was boycotted by the Vietnamese patriots and consumed mostly by the French, Vietnamese upper classes, and people working in the French governing body.
In the early 20th century, the banh mi adverts appeared for the first time in newspapers and flyers, spreading their popularity among locals. French bakeries made their way further south to My Tho, Ben Tre, and all the way to Can Tho. Although the banh mi at this time was still a “luxury” good, it was no longer an “exotic” food in the local’s eyes. It was made in larger quantities and always available to be bought freshly.
In the early 1930s, together with the growing familiarity, the banh mi also became more affordable for ordinary people. They were no longer just a staple to serve with French omelets on a dining table with forks and knives, but more a takeaway snack or a dry treat on long trips.
In the 2000s, when Saigon underwent explosive development, people from far-flung corners of Vietnam flocked to this city, which was praised as the “Pearl of the Far East,” to gaze at it in wonder. One of the intimate images of the banh mi at that time still engraved in our minds is the bamboo basket stacked with hot, crispy bread covered under a large sack. These baskets could be seen tied on the back of a street vendor’s bicycle, placed on the sidewalks, or lined up in front of the bus stations – where they were sought after as a Saigon specialty for souvenirs. Every time the sack was lifted off, the buttery and warm fragrance of hot, fresh banh mi filled the air, and no one could resist but eat the bread right away without any side dishes or toppings. Eating “banh mi khong,” hence, became a huge part of Vietnamese banh mi culture.
In our childhood memory, whenever there was someone in our little town traveling to Saigon, the villagers, from children to seniors, could not hide the excitement of receiving banh mi Saigon as gifts. We sat together while our parents tore it into pieces and distributed them to us, excited kids. That’s what we’ve grown up with and how the banh mi became indispensable in our life.
So, after two centuries of presence and integration, the banh mi has made its way into Vietnamese people’s lives and become a part of our regular diet, something we cannot live without.
The banh mi ingredients
Eating the banh mi is truly an exciting culinary experience. The incredible combination of crispy bread, soft cold cuts and meat, crunchy pickles, and fresh herbs will take you through different layers of the sense of taste. A typical loaf of banh mi consists of the ingredients listed below for reference:
- Banh mi bread: Made from high hydration dough and high protein flour, which creates a perfectly light and soft bread with a beautifully caramelized crispy crust.
- Butter: Made by beating egg yolks with cooking oil, lime juice, salt, and sugar. It has a melted butter texture but is creamier in taste.
- Pâté: Made from pork liver. The finished pâté is smooth in texture and extremely rich in flavor.
- Vietnamese cold cuts: This could have its own section; however, the most popular cold cut used in the banh mi is “cha lua” – a Vietnamese pork sausage roll. It consists of well-seasoned ground pork wrapped in banana leaves in the shape of a sausage roll and boiled until fully cooked. Another common option is the Vietnamese jambon, also known as red cold cuts (thit nguoi do). This includes lean pork and pork skin seasoned with black pepper, wrapped in a piece of pork skin and steamed until well cooked.
- Pickles and vegetables: Usually include pickled carrot and white daikon julienne cuts, combined with sliced cucumber, fresh coriander, green onions, and fresh chilies.
- Sauce: Soy sauce and homemade tomato sauce are usually the final touch for a loaf of banh mi.
The ingredients are added in the order mentioned, and they will surprise and satisfy you with their perfect blend of textures – crispy, crunchy, and soft – and how their tastes complement each other so perfectly. Most of the ingredients are homemade, so despite being made from the same ingredients, the banh mi tastes vary from vendor to vendor, making it a unique experience every time you try it.
Types of the banh mi
There are countless variations of the banh mi categorized by fillings that vary widely and uniquely across regions, with just the banh mi loaf as the main ingredient. Now, let’s travel southwards and take a look at six popular and iconic versions of this sandwich that have greatly contributed to putting it on the global cuisine map.
Banh mi chao Hanoi
In Hanoi, one of the most popular ways to eat the banh mi is to serve it with a small pan of sizzling hot toppings, which explains the name banh mi chao. This is thought to be inherited from the French eating culture, with the banh mi and toppings served separately and eaten with a knife and fork.
So what is in the pan? First of all, pâté, a lot of pâté, silky-smooth and rich pâté. Then, some French fries, a sunny-side-up egg, Vietnamese ham, and sausage are traditionally a must, sided with sliced cucumber and finally topped with green onions and coriander. The options go on forever with the personal touch of the chef. However, the secret of this combo lies within the flavorful and iconic sauce in which all the ingredients are cooked. It is basically tomato sauce, but well-seasoned (sometimes with some wine) according to the Hanoian palate, that really wakes up your appetite.
Banh mi bot loc Da Nang
You will be surprised to find out what this banh mi is about. Besides its beautiful long-stretching coastline, Da Nang is famous for banh bot loc – clear tapioca shrimp and pork dumplings. Savory shrimp and pork belly are covered in translucent, soft, and chewy dumpling skin and eaten with sweet and spicy fish sauce. We love the banh mi, and we love banh bot loc, so why not merge them together? And there, we have banh mi bot loc: baby dumplings are stuffed in a banh mi, with some greens and chili paste added. You can expect crispy bread outside and a surprisingly good explosion of tastes inside.
Banh mi Hoi An
For most visitors, when it comes to the Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi Hoi An probably the first one that springs to their mind. It was featured on national Korean TV shows and by many well-known food reviewers and famous figures. But its popularity is well-deserved. The most important element of a good sandwich is, of course, the banh mi itself. In Hoi An, the banh mi is marked with a unique shape, smaller and pointier on the two sides compared to other parts of the country. They are always freshly baked, so the crust outside is super crispy while the inside remains moist and soft.
It is commented that banh mi Hoi An is outstanding thanks to the diverse fillings, ranging from homemade garlic puree and barbeque pork to something distinguished like tuna. The fillings are a well-balanced combination of tender and juicy meat, fresh and crunchy green papaya and veggies, and a hint of spiciness and sweetness from the chili paste, which is Hoi An’s specialty. We’re sure you won’t have enough of it.
Banh mi cha ca Nha Trang
Being known for its abundant source of seafood, Nha Trang takes advantage of their specialty, which is fish cakes, and adds it to the availability of the banh mi to create a tasteful and iconic sandwich. The highlight of this version is obviously the fish cakes which are often made from mackerel fillets. Minced fish is shaped into pies before being deep-fried until they get the shiny caramelized color. Fish cakes are then cut into bite-size cuboids and stuffed in the banh mi with cucumber, green onions, lots of crispy fried shallot, and chili paste. The sandwich, with its texture from the land and fish cakes with the scent of the sea, would be an unforgettable cuisine experience.
Banh mi xiu mai Dalat
Dalat has become a sought-after holiday destination, not only for locals but also for world travelers, and its highland culinary delights play a huge role in its growing popularity. Within the Vietnamese community, banh mi xiu mai is a must-try, proof that one has been to Dalat. It is not a typical banh mi filled with fillings. Xiu mai are small meatballs made from minced pork and wood-ear mushrooms. In the misty and chilly weather, there’s nothing better than fresh banh mi served with a small bowl of xiu mai, chewy pork skin, steamed pork sausages, and topped with coriander. The warmth of the xiu mai soup and the heat from the added minced chilies are probably what sets banh mi xiu mai apart. When eating, we tear the banh mi into small pieces and dip them in the xiu mai soup, complementing it with bits of meatballs.
The meatballs are completely homemade by the lady owners using their own recipes, so they vary from vendor to vendor, making the experience more personal and unique. And don’t forget to get hot soy milk. Trust us; this combination can’t go wrong.
Banh mi thit nuong Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) locals have a love for thit nuong, or chargrilled pork of any kind. From grilled pork with broken rice (com tam thit nuong) and grilled pork with rice vermicelli (bun thit nuong) to grilled pork with sticky rice (xoi thit nuong), it’s no surprise that banh mi thit nuong (grilled pork stuffed in the banh mi) has made its way to the list.
Minced pork is marinated with a mixture of lemongrass, honey, and other seasonings. It’s then formed into meatballs or rolled around bamboo sticks, then chargrilled until the smoky aroma from the lemongrass fills the air and the pork remains juicy and moist from the steaming pork fat. The chargrilled pork is then stuffed in a banh mi, along with pickled carrots and daikon, fresh cucumber, coriander, and a drizzle of BBQ sauce.
The eating culture of the banh mi
- Best drink to pair with the banh mi: Since the sandwich is a bit dry, it’s ideal to have a drink on its side. The banh mi is best combined with an iced black coffee or milk coffee (ca phe den da or ca phe sua da). This is also the iconic and classic Vietnamese breakfast combo.
- The go-to option: Just like other Vietnamese dishes, a broad range of banh mi toppings can be overwhelming and leave you confused about which one to go for. A thap cam – mixed combo – will be a good place to start. It comes with everything the dish offers, so you can have a full picture of what the dish is like and pick out your favorite toppings for the next order.
- When to eat: The banh mi is typically eaten in the morning for breakfast due to its filling quality and portability. It is a perfect energy boost, fueling you for a long exploring day. However, feel free to have it for lunch or dinner or at any time you would like to. Personally, we love this sandwich so much that we can eat it every day for several days in a row.
- The banh mi as a sweet treat: If you ask any Vietnamese, they will tell you about the pleasure of dipping the banh mi in condensed milk and eating it straight. It may sound strange, but the sweet, creamy milk somehow just blends perfectly with the banh mi texture, making it such a satisfying combo that we are privileged to grow up with. Apart from eating with condensed milk, you can also find air-dried banh mi coated with white sugar, which is super crispy and fun to eat.
Where to eat the banh mi
The Vietnamese sandwich can be found anywhere in this S-shaped country, with endless variations and each location offering its own unique filling or preparation method. For a delicious banh mi experience, here are some of our suggestions on where to enjoy it:
Ho Chi Minh City
- Banh Mi Huynh Hoa
Address: 26 Le Thi Rieng, District 1
Price: 65,000 VND ($2.8)
- Banh Mi Bui Thi Xuan
Address: 122E Bui Thi Xuan, District 1
Price: 44,000 VND
- Banh Mi Chao Hieu Luc
Address: 326 Ba Trieu, Hai Ba Trung District
Price: 30,000 VND – 55,000 VND
- Banh Mi 25
Address: 25 Hang Ca, Hoan Kiem District
Price: 20,000 VND – 35,000 VND
- Banh Mi Bot Loc
Address: 73 Huynh Thuc Khang, Hai Chau District
Price: 10,000 VND – 20,000 VND
- Banh Mi Ba Lan
Address: 62 Trung Nu Vuong, Hai Chau District
Price: 10,000 VND – 35,000 VND
- Banh Mi Phuong
Address: 2B Phan Chau Trinh, Cam Chau Ward
Price: 30,000 VND
- Madam Khanh
Address: 115 Tran Cao Van, Minh An Ward
Price: 20,000 VND – 30,000 VND
- Banh Mi Cha Ca Nha Trang
Address: 14 Yersin, Van Thang Ward
Price: 15,000 VND
- Banh Mi Ba Le
Address: 63 Le Thanh Phuong, Van Thang Ward
Price: 13,000 VND – 30,000 VND
- Banh Mi Xiu Mai Ri 79
Address: 01 Thong Thien Hoc, Ward 2
Price: 15,000 VND – 30,000 VND
- Banh Mi Xiu Mai
Address: 35 Hoang Dieu, Ward 5
Price: 15,000 VND – 30,000 VND