Booming Saigon, a city on the move, lays claim to a specialty that Vietnamese-American writer Monique Truong, author of “The Book of Salt” and the coming “Bitter in the Mouth,” calls “the ultimate on-the-go fare”: the extravagantly stuffed banh mi sandwich.
The most popular form is banh mi thit (“thit” means “meat”), a warmed baguette spread with mayonnaise and pâté and filled with ham, headcheese and sausage. Cucumber, tomato, cilantro, chilies, and do chua, a bracing radish-and-carrot relish, add characteristic Vietnamese freshness. Optional condiments include chili sauce, Maggi (a bottled sauce of Swiss origin) and soy sauce.
Ordered to go, banh mi comes wrapped in scrap paper secured with a rubber band, a portable meal epitomizing Saigon’s “insatiable appetite and deep desires, for better or worse, to keep moving,” says Ms. Truong, who was born in Saigon, now officially called Ho Chi Minh City.
The French introduced baguettes to Vietnam, where the locals called the narrow loaves banh tay (literally, “foreign cake”). “Banh tay were for rich Vietnamese. They dipped them in sweetened condensed milk,” recalls 83-year-old Thinh Thi Nguyen, who was born in a village near Hanoi. She didn’t eat her first baguette sandwich until she was 20; by then Vietnamese called them banh mi (“mi” means “wheat”).
In 1954 French rule ended, Vietnam was split in two, and many of the north’s shopkeepers moved to noncommunist South Vietnam. Former northerners like 78-year-old Ding Chieu Nguyen, whose family had owned a banh mi shop in Hanoi, made Saigon the new sandwich capital. Her Saigon banh mi shop, Hoa Ma Quan, remains one of the city’s most popular after 50 years.
Food shortages followed the end of the war and reunification of the country in 1975, and banh mi was once again an extravagance. But free-market reforms in the late ’80s unleashed Vietnam’s entrepreneurial spirit and banh mi resurfaced, mostly as street food.
These days vendors stuff baguettes with cheese, tinned sardines in tomato sauce, shredded chicken, grilled pork patties, meatballs in sweet barbecue sauce, fried eggs cooked to order and, especially on the first and 15th of the lunar month (when many Buddhists eschew meat), gluten and bean curd.
Baguette sandwiches are sold from shop fronts, push carts, motorbikes and shoulder poles. “Why buy all the pieces and put them together when it’s so easy” to hit the streets? asks Saigon native Van Luk. Depending on the time of day and the size of its baguette, banh mi can be a snack or a meal. “I like it best in the morning and in the evening,” says Ms. Luk. “It’s too heavy for lunch, when we prefer rice or soup.”
Ms. Truong, however, reckons that “every hour is banh mi hour,” as long as the sandwich is eaten “within five minutes of it being made. There is something close to alchemy,” she says, “when the baguette is still hot and has lent its warmth to the pâté and the [sausage], while not wilting the cilantro or cucumber spears.”
These days most baguettes are made with a combination of wheat and rice flours, resulting in a fluffy crumb and exceptionally crackly crust. Some consumers feel this adds a welcome textural dimension to the banh mi, but Vietnamese old enough to remember traditional French-style baguettes don’t always agree. For Ms. Luk, the filling is the key: “The pâté shouldn’t smell too strong, the ham and pork should be excellent quality.” And the mayonnaise, she adds, should be made in-house, with fresh eggs.
Like the city that calls the sandwich its own, banh mi continues to evolve. Several shops in Saigon have recently introduced baguettes stuffed with pork roasted on a spit. But die-hard fans have their limits. “I don’t want to hear about the shiitake- or portobello-mushroom banh mi,” says Ms. Truong. “I’m sure there are lovely mushroom sandwiches, but let’s not kid ourselves.”
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