The French occupation of Vietnam did a great deal to add oomph to that nation’s already stellar cuisine. Bò kho – the rich and meaty local take on beef stew – reminds diners of classic boeuf Bourguignon and comes to the table with a sliced baguette on the side for dipping. Then there’s paté chaud, a filling meat pie made with flaky puff pastry. And, of course, there’s bánh mì.
Bánh mì is, for all intents and purposes, a sandwich. Now, you may say “I’ve had sandwiches all my life. What makes this different from everything else?” Let’s get down to the details, shall we?
A standard-issue bánh mì starts out with a small baguette. It should be noted at this point, that Vietnamese bread is more like a cross between a baguette (in form, if nothing else) and the softer-crumbed and sweeter pan de mie. The bread is then split and buttered – or, more likely, slathered with Vietnamese “mayonnaise”, a delectable spread made with hard-boiled eggs, butter, and a variety of spices. Atop a fresh lettuce leaf, one’s protein source of choice is then layered on. Finally, a selection of pickled vegetables is placed on top – usually sweet-pickled carrots and singkamas (jicama) – to add color and crunch. Et voila: c’est un bánh mì!
My very first bánh mì experience came when I was a kid in high school and my father brought home what was called a “Vietnamese sandwich” at his office cafeteria. It was fabulous: crunchy tangy veg, smooth pork pate, and smoky-savory roast pork. Alas for me, I didn’t have another sandwich till about recently.
What you see at the top of this post is a bánh mì thịt nướng from Pho Hoa, or more colloquially: a bánh mì made with grilled pork. It was every bit as delicious as that long-ago sandwich and I seriously recommend it to anyone who’s craving for Vietnamese food. After all, one can get bored with noodles and spring rolls. 😉