My childhood was marked by many constants and consistencies.
The cigarette smoke that clung to the leather interior of my dad’s 2003 Lexus GS. My mom’s Wednesday night karaoke and poker parties. Arguments with my older sister over who was the rightful owner of New Year’s Eve Barbie (and the accompanying scrunchie that matched the doll’s magenta jacquard ballgown). After-school bánh mì on Fridays.
Even though I loved the star-shaped chicken nuggets at Carl’s Jr., and my sister preferred the simplicity of an In-N-Out cheeseburger, my dad’s appetite and cravings dictated where we would eat when he would pick my sister and me up from school. More often than not, this meant Vietnamese food; and the cheapest, quickest, most diverse option was bánh mì.
With a menu of fillings that rivaled that of any American sub-shop, there was an option for every person, no matter their age or personal taste. From headcheese (gi. thú) and Chinese BBQ pork (thịt xá xíu) to roasted chicken (gà nướng) and my childhood favorite of pork floss and pâté (pate ruốc), the bánh mì was a marker of the weekend to come, and it, too, was marked with consistencies, following a set of rules that defined itself as a bánh mì and not just another sandwich. Bias-cut slices of cucumber and jalapeno. Đồ chua (pickled julienned carrots and daikon). A schmear of mayonnaise. Another schmear of pâté. A few sprigs of coriander. And most importantly, the bánh mì, itself.
In Vietnamese, the term bánh mì, refers to both “bread” and the “sandwich.” And like other Vietnamese dishes, the bánh, or the starch- and legume-based ingredients, oftentimes define the dish. Phở cannot be phở without bánh phở, or flat, rice noodles. The same can be said for bánh mì. So no matter how many Trader Joe’s bánh m. noodle bowls get sold and however many bánh mì salad recipes get published, a bánh mì can only be a bánh mì as a sandwich. As cookbook author, Andrea Nguyen so simply explains, “you can’t have bánh mì the sandwich without bánh mì the bread” (A. Nguyen, 2014). And it has to be a baguette. The baguette is the crux, the vehicle, and the namesake of the bánh mì, and the baguette could not exist in Vietnam without French colonization.
“The baguette is the crux, the vehicle, and the namesake of the bánh mì.”
It’s a difficult thing to contend with, the realization that both of Vietnam’s national dishes are products of French imperialism, but as history reveals, both the bánh mì and phở are reactions to French occupation, as well as subversions and indigenizations of French foodways and ingredients.
Arriving in Vietnam in the mid-nineteenth century, the baguette came with French occupiers looking to settle in the newly colonized Cochinchina (southern Vietnam). For the French, baguettes, or petit pains, were a source of comfort and, according to historian Erica J. Peters, making bread was one of the first things the French military taught the local population to do. These workers, equipped with new skills, and seeing a burgeoning market with the steady flow of French settlers, began to open their own bakeries and shops.
Originally called bánh tây (meaning “French bread”), the baguette was twice-baked daily in Saigon bakeries and was intentionally made thinner to combat the chewiness that was inevitable in the humid climate. Starting out as a breakfast food, the baguette was eaten with imported Bretel butter and a sprinkle of sugar, but by the early twentieth century, working-class Saigonese began filling the baguette with Vietnamese and French ingredients, turning it into an appropriate snack and lunch meal. (Never dinner though. A Vietnamese dinner must be warm and should be accompanied with a bowl of rice or noodles.)
The classic version of the bánh mì (sandwich, not bread) is a display of adoption and creation. Mimicry and originality. A melding of two cultures and two palettes to create something that is inherently Vietnamese. This is most obvious in the contents of the sandwich, with Vietnamese versions of their French counterparts being made for immediate consumption (i.e. without preservatives or preservation methods), oftentimes leading to punchier bites of flavor and texture. For example, Vietnamese pâté is typically steamed, rather than baked, and it contains ground pork cinnamon, white pepper, fish sauce (nước mắm), cloves and allspice (in addition to the traditional ingredients of chicken liver, onions, garlic, nutmeg, and cognac).
Similarly, thịt nguội, or cold cuts, are Vietnamese attempts at recreating French ham sans curing (the Vietnamese climate is not suited for such an act). Marinated hunks of pork shoulder and belly are roasted and cooled before being thinly sliced. These two ingredients, when combined with chả lụa (Vietnamese mortadella-like pork sausages steamed in banana leaves) and gi. thú (a headcheese with rehydrated woodear mushrooms and fish sauce), make up the savory, rich base of a bánh mì đặc biệt, or “special bánh mì .” This heady, livery taste is further amplified by and contrasted against the custardy-creamy texture of mayonnaise; the cool, crunch of cucumbers; and the spicy hit of jalapenos.
The true magic, however, lies in the bright acidity of đồ chua. Delicate in taste and texture, đồ chua is a quick pickle made from julienned daikon and carrots—another French import— marinated in a white vinegar and sugar brine. They provide moisture to the sandwich and prevent the baguette from being too dry—an unpopular texture to the Vietnamese palette. And they were my favorite part of the sandwich growing up.
I could eat it straight from the jar. Going and going until my fingers pruned and my tongue went numb from all the vinegar. My mother, or grandmother, or whichever passing auntie would scold me before giving me a glass of soy milk, or sữa đậu nành, to calm the stinging in my mouth. The combination of the sandwich—with its fine-tuned balance of salty, sour, freshness and heat—with the sweet nuttiness of soy milk is what truly brings me back... is what truly brings me joy. And as I’ve gotten older, my love for and understanding of the bánh mì is based on the fact that it is greater than the sum of its parts. The paradoxical nature of lightness and fulfillment. Of simplicity and complexity. Of tradition and innovation.
“The combination of the sandwich—with its finetuned balance of salty, sour, freshness and heat—with the sweet nuttiness of soy milk is what truly brings me back.”
On April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War ended, Saigon fell, and over 125,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated. Originally scattered throughout the country under government sponsorship, the Vietnamese refugee population soon formed ethnic enclaves in California, Texas, Louisiana, and Massachusetts. At the center of these communities were momand-pop Asian grocery stores and restaurants. Filling the culinary gaps and memories and desires and cravings of the immigrant population, these eateries served cơm tấm (broken rice), bò lúc lắc (shaken beef), phở, and other Vietnamese delicacies.
The bánh mì, however, took on a different cultural significance—especially in the Bay Area. Similar to its humble beginnings in Saigon, the Vietnamese American bánh mì was served as a snack and lunch meal to assembly line workers in the Silicon Valley who were looking for something quick and affordable. One of the first pioneers of the bánh mì were the Lê brothers, who started with two food trucks before expanding their business into one of the largest bakery chains in the United States: Lee’s Sandwiches®. Over the decades, Lee’s Sandwiches has adhered to preparing and serving traditional variations of the bánh mì while maintaining affordable and accessible prices for those within and outside of the Vietnamese American community.
I, myself, spent many midterms and finals weeks sustaining myself on their freshly baked $1.50 baguettes and jumbo-sized cups of cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk). Today, the bánh mì has expanded beyond Vietnamese eateries and has become a source of inspiration, recreation, and some might argue, appropriation. One such example can be found on Jack in the Box’s Food Truck Series sandwiches menu, with an “Asian fried chicken sandwich,” featuring crispy fried chicken strips, slices of cucumber, “an Asian-style slaw,” and gochujang mayonnaise on a rice-flour baguette.
At a $4.99 price tag, this version of the sandwich doesn’t vary too far away from the cost of a bánh m. at Vietnamese fast food eateries, but the presence of gochujang leaves room for criticism. After all, gochujang is a Korean chili paste, and there are other Vietnamese chili sauces that could make up the spicy component of this aioli (i.e. Huy Fong’s Sriracha is a Sino-Vietnamese American invention, created in California).
Unlike Jack in the Box’s rendition of the bánh mì, other restaurants adhere more closely to the traditional version of the sandwich, but differ in cost. Food truck chain, Bon Me, sells pork and vegetarian bánh mì options at $7 each, as well as other Asian-noodle inspired bowls, all with punny names and fusion-inspired ingredients. Others have a higher price tag.
With prices starting at $11, LA-based sandwich chain, Mendocino Farms, sells a “Bánh mì ” served on a “panini-pressed ciabatta” with braised pork belly, pickled daikon and carrots, jalapenos, and a chili aioli. Likewise, Banh Oui, in Los Angeles, serves a variety of bánh mì that focus on “experience through taste.” From the “steak banh oui” to the “chicken katsu banh oui”—all featuring these protein options on French rolls accompanied with pickled daikon and carrots, chicken liver pâté, cucumbers, and other traditional accoutrements—this restaurant’s menu epitomizes the “bougie-fication,” or rather “elevation” of a dish that arguably, didn’t need elevation in the first place.
As Randall Parks’ Marcus explains in romantic-comedy Always Be My Maybe, “Asian food isn’t supposed to be elevated. It’s supposed to be authentic.” That’s not to say that there isn’t room for growth and creativity with the sandwich, but if dining truly is shaped by experience, then my experience of the bánh mì cannot be separated from its history and origins. Similar to Anthony Bourdain’s description of his Hanoian meal with Barack Obama with “low plastic stool[s], cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer,” my understanding of Vietnamese food—of the bánh mì —isn’t only defined by taste, flavors, and texture, but by the memories attached to them.
“Bánh mì is home in a different way. Bánh mì is my home outside of home. It is the comforting crinkle of wrapping paper. The bitter-turned-sweet taste of cà phê sữa đá.”
Sitting in the back of my dad’s car after school. One hand holding half a baguette, the other holding a box of Yeo’s soy milk. Road trips to Disneyland with a plastic bag full of bánh mì at my feet. Dipping my feet into the pool at my sister’s wedding reception while a platter of quarter-cut sandwiches is passed around and the balmy Hoi An air surrounds me. And even though I love the sandwich, I’ve only ever attempted to make it at home a handful of times. The construction of the sandwich is clear, with each ingredient having its own role to play, but the memories I’ve attached to the bánh m. necessitate going out to eat it.
It isn’t like phở or chả gi. (fried spring rolls) or gà kho gừng (braised ginger chicken). These dishes remind me of home. Of my grandmother and mother teaching me how to prepare each dish, their hands guiding my own, adjusting spices and flavors to their own taste. Passing along the recipes that are so inherently ingrained into their minds and memories.
Bánh mì is home in a different way. bánh mì is my home outside of home. It is the comforting crinkle of wrapping paper. The bitter-turned-sweet taste of cà phê sữa đá. The fluorescent lights that hang overhead while Vietnamese variety shows play in the background and old men banter over a game of cards. For me, the bánh mì, and the bánh mì shop, are emblems of the Vietnamese American community that I grew up in. It is a record of Vietnamese resilience and innovation. Creating foods and homes and communities in times of turmoil and displacement.
The bánh mì is the first thing I want to eat whenever I return to California. Not Carl’s Jr. chicken nuggets. Not an In-N-Out burger. Not chả giò. Give me a number 1 bánh mì đặc biệt with extra đồ chua, and I’ll know that I’ve come home.