Anatomy of a Dish: Banh Mi
A fusion of French and Vietnamese flavour wrapped up in a neat package, the banh mi is one of the world's great sandwiches.
The banh mi is so much more than a sandwich. It's cross-cultural pollination and conflict, crunch and squish, fire and fragrance all in a handy handful.
Its story begins when the French arrived in Saigon in the late 19th century, bringing their bread with them. Locals eventually tweaked and ran with it, adding familiar flavours in an example of fusion at its best. In Australia, as Vietnamese bakeries selling rolls filled with lunch meats, pate, pickles, coriander, chilli and spring onion became fixtures, variations appeared – tinned tuna giving it a salad-sandwich lean, or bacon and eggs upgrading the tradies' breakfast staple.
Acclaimed chef Dan Hong says in his book Mr Hong, 'In my eyes, banh mi is up there with the sandwiches of the world. It’s the perfect balance of richness, acidity, texture, freshness and spice. In short, everything you could ever want in a sandwich.' And he's not wrong.
We'll take a banh mi as our sandwich of choice any day of the week. Just don't mess with the bread.
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Banh Mi: the Essential Elements
The flavour of South East Asia comes through loud and clear in the coriander and spring onion packed along a banh mi's length. And the only answer when you're asked if you'd like chilli is, of course, 'Yes, please'.
Mayonnaise and a thick smear of pâté – usually chicken liver and pork – line the roll. Then a soy-based dressing (shops mix their own, often including fish sauce and garlic) ties all the flavours together. A splash of Maggi seasoning is common, and Sriracha is always welcome.
Common inclusions for a pork banh mi are slices of cha lua, a steamed pork roll, among other types of thit nguoi, or Vietnamese cold cuts. Grilled or roast pork, nem (cured pork), and gio thu, Vietnam's answer to brawn (aka headcheese) can also feature. You'll often see shredded chicken, too.
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Do chua – jullienned carrot and daikon pickled in sugar, salt and vinegar – and long slices of fresh cucumber add sweet, cooling crunch to help balance all that meatiness.
As with burgers, any attempt to fancy up the bread detracts from the banh mi's ephemeral beauty. The crunch and fluffiness of the classic Vietnamese baguette, a legacy of the French occupation of Vietnam, is what you need here.
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