A history of the banh mi, the world’s favorite sandwich

At first glance, the alley off Cao Thang Street in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) could be mistaken for countless others across this city of eight or so million. Motorbikes zip past shops selling second-hand cellphones, sporty backpacks and shampoo packets. One street vendor serves bun thit nuong (rice noodles with grilled pork), while another – riding a three-wheeled motorbike – touts the refreshing joys of kem dua (coconut ice cream) on a hot day.

The difference is this busy little Saigon alley is hallowed ground for sandwich fans. That’s because the squat, pale-peach building with a rusty tin canopy and faded sign is the birthplace of the sandwich that’s taken over the world: banh mi. And eating one here, at ground zero, comes with a surprise.

But first, what’s a banh mi?

No sandwich really can compare. It’s pure fusion food, where every bite of its complex ingredients of flaky baguette, pickled vegetables, spices, herbs and grilled meats doubles as a lesson in this country’s history and philosophy.

During the French colonial period from 1887 to 1954, Vietnam learned about a lot of new things: coffee, Christianity, the Roman alphabet, cute villas, huge European-style prisons and crispy baguettes. Initially these bread loaves were filled with the priciest of meats, becoming exclusively a rich person’s sandwich known as banh tay, or “western bread.”

Vietnamese banh mi sandwichVietnamese banh mi sandwich — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / rudisill

Then in 1954, after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnamese sandwich-makers pivoted to yin-yang. That’s what Vietnamese chefs always aim for: balancing “hot” and “cold” ingredients to ensure diners finish feeling happy and healthy. (Locals will tell you, if you go on an exclusive eating spree of, say, mangoes – a rare “hot” fruit – brace yourself for a nasty cough.)

Eating a local banh mi shows how this works.

It begins with the flaky, wheat-bread sheath (mi means wheat). Then dips deeper into the spice of chili, the richness of fried or grilled pork, the savory tang of Maggi sauce (a fermented wheat protein the French brought), a softening mayo and cilantro, and that distinctive crunch of pickled cucumber, radish or carrot. Writer Andrew Lam dotingly summed up each taste as “a moment of rapture.” Amen.

It’s believed the banh mi hails from Hoa Ma, the District 3 sandwich shop open since 1958 and in this location since 1960. Its creators were a northern couple who immigrated to Saigon after 1954 and named their shop after their village outside Hanoi. The goal was to create take-away food with fresh ingredients and – unlike the French prequel – sold at a more affordable price.

This bahn mi spot is still open and is run by the same family, in fact, the granddaughter, Thanh Truc, puts every dish together up front.

Each morning, the staff whisk diners to one of 15 outdoor aluminum tables. A bilingual menu describes the two items: a sandwich of assorted porks and meats with or without two fried eggs. What comes next is a little surprising.

First comes the bread, delivered alone on a green plate, along with a server of pâté coated in mayo and another with pickled veggies. Soon a hot platter of proteins follows – two eggs with golden yokes, grilled tofu cut into triangles, fried pork, sliced sausage and grilled onion.

Many local diners, their motorbikes parked next to the table, top their platter in Maggi or chili sauce, then eat with a fork, alternating with bites of bread pulled apart by hand. Others stuff the ingredients into mini sandwiches they build as they go.

This is not an everyday experience in Vietnam, or anywhere really. Most sandwiches here are served to-go from street vendors who assemble everything into a somewhat secret medley. Here, it comes more like a banh mi kit. Everything’s out in the open. And helps you see the banh mi complexity in all its tasty glory.

It’s possible some sandwich enthusiasts who hotly debate what is and isn’t a “sandwich” on social media might be uncomfortable with this DIY methodology. Honestly, Hoa Ma is too busy to worry much about what qualifies as a “sandwich,” but they sure know what a banh mi is.

And the world has noticed.

Hoa Ma (53 Cao Thang St, District 3) is open 6 am to 11 am daily. Sandwiches with eggs are about $2 and without they go for about $1.50. They also serve water and coffee.

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