In Vietnamese, “bánh” means anything breadish, pastry like, etc.
“mì” means something that comes from wheat flour.
Together “bánh mì” means yummy sandwiches.
Subway or Quiznos it is not.
Here’s what I know:
- the French introduced bread to the Vietnamese and instilled a love of fresh breads when they left in 1954. Most bread here is a baguette, yet it’s somehow lighter and with a thinner crust
- there is no standard bánh mì – every vendor makes them differently and what separates one bánh mì artist from another is the combination of meats, veggies, and sauces
- I love them
I am not normally a big sandwich eater. Maybe once or twice a month I’ll go in for a sandwich, but it’s gotta be something special, like a pastrami at Carnegie Deli on 7th Ave in NYC or the off-menu Fried Chicken and Waffle Sandwich from Roscoes in LA.
But these are somehow special. The ingredients may vary, but the basics are:
- some combination of proteins
- cucumber or pickles
- shredded carrot (pickled or otherwise)
- pickled daikon, radish, or alternate root
- chili peppers (optional)
- ‘special sauce’
Bánh mì can certainly be bought in a restaurant, but for me, it is the perfect street food…no utensils required, all your food groups happily living under the same (baguette) roof, and it fits in one hand. There are street vendors everywhere making them from shop fronts, push carts, and off the back of motorbikes.
The two elements of bánh mì that make each vendor unique is their choices and preparations of proteins and their own sauce. Pork, poultry, pate, tofu, and various deli meats are all common, but you can also find some interesting (and often unrecognizable) alternatives on other carts.
Another differentiator of the bánh mì vendors are their sauces. Of the many I’ve had and many I’ve seen, the choices dance from sweet and spicy, to mayonnaise, to straight chili paste, to sweet and sour-like sauces, to vinegar-based herbal dressings…the number of choices are only limited by the number of vendors.
It’s easy to find several bánh mì vendors lined up next to one another. It’s also easy to see one of them servicing ten customers while no one orders from the other carts. My guess is those carts won’t be on that particular street corner a month from now. It’s a personal preference and once you find the bánh mì vendor that makes one to your own taste or requests, you keep going back.
Now, a couple days ago, while in Kon Tum, Vietnam, I had what I consider to be the best bánh mì I’ve ever had. What made it so special? Well, first, she toasted the bread…most vendors do not. Second, she used two different sauces inside the bun…one pork and one beef. Third, she used five different kinds of pork inside the sandwich – including some truly memorable pork cracklings and some dried, shredded pork as a topping.
Forget it. You wanna see how to make the perfect bánh mì, watch this video.