Banh Mi: East Meets West In One Perfect Sandwich

Nothing makes an easier or more satisfyingly simple snack than a sandwich. Quick and easy to put together, fully customisable and can be taken wherever you need to go. Every culture in the world has realised the beauty of the concept and has adapted it to their own preferences. Be it the quesadilla or a spicy wrap. Even the Queen of England loves a good sandwich. So when cultures collide and create something new, you know it’s something to get excited about, and that’s what happened in the case of the Vietnamese Bánh Mì. 

The name Bánh Mì comes from the Vietnamese word meaning ‘bread’ but today it’s synonymous with street food that has become a global sensation. The Bánh Mì bread is similar to a French baguette because it was a remnant from the colonisation of the country in the mid-1900s. As they began occupying large areas of Vietnam, parts of their culture began trickling down into daily life. Bánh Mì wasn’t the only addition to the food sector though, pâtés, pastries and coffee also became a part of Vietnamese daily life. 

The first iteration of Bánh Mì was plain white bread spread with plain pâtés, a simple affair that didn’t look remotely like the version we know today. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a new avatar of the sandwich began taking over Saigon. The secret to its success was the addition of traditional Vietnamese elements that really transformed the Bánh Mì into something spectacular. This development helped it become a favourite for American troops during the Vietnam War, who were taken by the familiar concept of a sandwich being so elevated in taste. They returned the dish to their shores and Vietnamese immigrants from the country carried it even further.

When compared to a traditional baguette, the Bánh Mì bread is thinner, making it a much lighter snack. The classic version is filled with seasoned meat – usually, chả lụa (pork sausage) or fried beef, pork and chicken – but vegetarian versions with tofu are fairly common as well. It’s then topped off with bright, crunchy vegetables like pickled carrots and daikon radish, cucumber and a sprinkle of fresh herbs like cilantro. Mayonnaise is the sauce of preference here, but dashes of soy sauce, fish sauce or chilli sauce can also be added for additional flavour. 

The beauty of the Bánh Mì is the variety of textures and tastes which take you on a culinary journey. The bread itself transitions from crusty on the outside to fluffy inside. Then you get the crunch of the vegetables and the acidity from the pickling intermingled with the richness and fattiness of the meat. This melange of components appeals to all palates and preferences in a dish that's beloved the world over.