Speaking of Vietnamese food, most people immediately think about Pho, the national dish of Vietnam, but there is one rising star of Vietnamese cuisine that has already made it onto the international culinary stage. That is banh mi.
Although catching attention of foreign visitors later, banh mi has already achieved significant popularity as “the world’s best street food”, which praised by many famous food bloggers, journalists, for example the Guardian, BBC, etc. and much more.
With just nearly 20,000VND (about $1), you can easily enjoy a true taste of Vietnamese street food, especially in Saigon where it appears almost everywhere.
Actually, banh mi is a delicious symbol of Vietnam’s lasting links with its former occupiers. Let’s explore its journey to become one of the most popular street food in Saigon.
From French baguettes …
Vietnamese baguette, or most commonly-known as ‘Banh mi‘, originally came from the baguette brought by the French in the early nineteenth century. Not until 1859 when French army occupied the Citadel of Saigon did this kind of bread appear widely throughout the country.
Compared to banh mi nowadays, the soft inner part of the bread during this period was less fluffier and its crust was also less crisp. The Government of the Republic of Vietnam usually provided a light meal of bread and fresh milk from the Fore Most to primary school students. However, loaves of baguette baked in batch of about 7-10 turned out to be not enough to meet the schools’ demands.
So in 1970, tall brick ovens were imported from Japan, allowing for baking dozens of bread at one time possible. This is also the type of the oven that is commonly used today. These ovens are closed ones, which retains steam when baking. At extreme heat and extreme water vapor, the bread will become hollow with a super soft airy crumb texture and crispy crust.
… to becoming banh mi like today …
At that time, Vietnamese people still used banh mi with cheese, omelet, cold meats (pâté, jambon), butter, and jam such as strawberry, orange, grape or hot milk for breakfast. They also used it with soup or ragout for dinner. The major modification contributing to today’s banh mi was conducted by one couple, Mr.Hoa and Mrs.Tinh, who used to work for a bakery in Hanoi and then moved to Saigon and opened Banh mi Hoa Ma.
The shop initially served banh mi in French style, with the separation of bread, cold meats, and pâté. But more and more laborers came to the shop and eat in hurry, which made them come up with the idea to put all the ingredients into one Banh mi.
Other shops also started to serve in this way and began to change banh mi to please more customers by making it lighter and airier with a thin crunchy crust. For more convenience, they decreased the size of banh mi by 2-3 times and replaced animal oil with oil butter to give a lighter feel. Thanks to the rich ingredients from the tropical climate and diverse cuisine, local people were free to put their creativity into their banh mi, which created different types for customers to choose from, such as pork meatball banh mi, grilled-pork banh mi, banh mi pha lau (offal braised in a sweet coconut juice), roasted chicken banh mi, and so on.
Soon, from a tiny shop in the corner of Cao Thang-Nguyen Dinh Chieu, hundreds of stalls selling banh mi have developed throughout Saigon, nationwide and even around the world.
The rise of Banh mi
Banh mi has become a phenomenon across the globe for over the last few years. You will find at least one famous bakery in almost everywhere Vietnamese people are living. In the United States, we have Bánh Mì Saigon in New York, Bun Mee in San Francisco, and Lee’s Sandwiches, the famous fast food chain specialized in Vietnamese cuisine. Coming to Canada, we have Bánh Mì Boys in Toronto, Bánh Mì Thi-Thi in Calgary. Coming to the Czech Republic, we have Banh mi Ba and Mr. Bánh Mì in Prague. Born to serve the Vietnamese community, but these bread shops are quickly accepted and loved by foreigners.
BBC Travel Writer David Farley praised banh mi as “the best sandwich in the world”, while the famous food blogger i am a food blog admitted that banh mi was his favorite food. Together with gelato of Italy and pearl milk tea of Taiwan, banh mi was listed as one of the 20 best street foods by Rough Guides Publisher. Banh mi ranks second in a recent story run in the Guardian about the World’s Best Street Food and written by foodie Richard Johnson. Moreover, the word ‘banh mi‘ has been officially added in the Oxford English Dictionary in April 2011 and the American Heritage Dictionary in 2014.
Just like that, the number of food trucks dishing up tasty and inventive street food keeps growing up in London, USA, etc. and the explosion in food blogging, the phenomenal success of television cooking shows have made banh mi more and more popular than ever, especially the recipe of banh mi thit nguoi.
Becoming a culinary wonder of our globalized age, but here, in Vietnam, banh mi is the most common breakfast, especially among students and workers. It is quite cheap, which usually costs about 10,000-35,000 VND (0.5-1.5$). The price of 35,000 VND can be considered expensive.
Banh mi is the epitome of street food, which is sold almost exclusively from stalls and vendors. There are different types of ingredients to choose, for example, grilled pork, omelet, meatball, etc. but the most famous recipe which many tourists fall in love with must be banh mi thit nguoi. This kind of banh mi mainly contains a cornucopia of roast pork, pâté, cured ham, headcheese, a few dashes of Maggi sauce, slices of cucumber and chili pepper, a spread of mayonnaise, a mixture of pickled daikon and carrot and a sprinkling of cilantro.
1.Banh mi Huynh Hoa ( Bánh mì Huỳnh Hoa ):
Address: 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, Q.1
Open hours: 4:00-9:00 pm, daily
Price: 35,000 VND ($1.60)- it’s rather expensive in here but it’s worth the price for being the most meat packed.
Banh mi Huynh Hoa is famous for the incredibly rich fillings and its super savory flavor of pate.
2. Banh Mi 37 Nguyen Trai (Bánh Mì Thịt Nướng Hẻm 39):(served grilled pork banh mi only)
Address: Hẻm 39 Nguyễn Trãi, Q.1
Open hours: 5PM–7.30PM
Price: 18,000 VND ($0.8)
This small stall is praised as one of 12 best street food in the world by Condé Nast Traveler magazine.
3. Banh mi Bay Ho ( Bánh Mì Bảy Hổ):
Address: 19 Huỳnh Khương Ninh, P. Đa Kao, Q.1
Open hours: 2PM–5PM and morning
Price: 12,000-15,000 VND ($0.50-$0.66)
Tucked away in the corner of the street is a small little stall that is over 80 years old.
4. Banh mi Hoa Ma ( Bánh mì Hòa Mã)
Address: 53 Đường Cao Thắng, phường 17, Quận 3
Open hours: 5 AM–10AM
Price: 50,000-60,000 VND ($2.2-$2.6)
And here is a Saigon original’s banh mi breakfast
5. Banh mi Hong Hoa (Bánh mì Hồng Hoa)
Address: 62 Nguyễn Văn Tráng, Bến Thành, Quận 1
Open hours: 5 AM–9PM
Price: 13,000-20,000 VND ($0.6-$1)
This place is really famous among foreigners and it even has a menu in English.