Bánh mì or banh mi (/ /, //; Vietnamese: [ɓǎɲ mî]) refers to a kind of sandwich that consists of a Vietnamese single-serving baguette, also called bánh mì in Vietnamese, split lengthwise and filled with various ingredients. A Vietnamese baguette is airier than a Western baguette, with a thinner crust.
A typical Vietnamese sandwich is a fusion of meats and vegetables from native Vietnamese cuisine – such as chả lụa (pork sausage), coriander, cucumber, and pickled carrots and daikon (đồ chua) – and condiments from French cuisine – such as pâté, jalapeño, and mayonnaise. However, there is a wide variety of popular fillings, from xíu mại to ice cream.
The baguette was introduced to Vietnam in the mid–19th century, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina, and became a staple food by the early 20th century. During the 1950s, a distinctly Vietnamese style of sandwich developed in Saigon, becoming a popular street food. Following the Vietnam War, Overseas Vietnamese popularized the bánh mì sandwich in countries such as the United States.
In Vietnamese, the word bánh mì is derived from bánh (which can refer to many kinds of food, including bread) and mì (wheat). It may also be spelled bánh mỳ in northern Vietnam. Taken alone, bánh mì means "bread" but is understood to be the Vietnamese baguette. Via synecdoche, it may also refer to a sandwich, with the term bánh mì kẹp being used to disambiguate. In particular, bánh mì often refers to the sandwiches made on Vietnamese baguettes, which may be called bánh mì Sài Gòn, after the city in which they were popularized. However, even in Vietnam, "a bánh mì for breakfast" implies a meat-filled sandwich for breakfast, not just bread.
A folk etymology claims that the word bánh mì is a corruption of the French pain de mie, meaning soft, white bread. However, bánh or its Nôm form 餅 has referred to rice cakes and other pastries since as early as the 13th century, centuries before French contact.
The baguette was introduced to Vietnam by the French during the colonial period, along with other baked goods such as pâté chaud. Northern Vietnamese initially called the baguette bánh tây, literally "Western bánh", while southern Vietnamese called it bánh mì, "wheat bánh". Nguyễn Đình Chiểu mentions it in his 1861 poem "Văn tế nghĩa sĩ Cần Giuộc". Due to the price of imported wheat at the time, French baguettes and sandwiches were considered luxury items. During World War I, an influx of French soldiers and supplies arrived. At the same time, disruptions of wheat imports led bakers to begin mixing in inexpensive rice flour (which also made the bread fluffier). As a result, it became possible for ordinary Vietnamese to enjoy French staples such as bread.
Until the 1950s, sandwiches hewed closely to French tastes, with ham and cheese sandwiches and pâté spreads being common. The 1954 Partition of Vietnam sent over a million migrants from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, transforming Saigon's local cuisine. Among the migrants were Lê Minh Ngọc and Nguyễn Thị Tịnh, who opened a small bakery named Hòa Mã in District 3. In 1958, Hòa Mã became one of the first shops to sell bánh mì thịt. Around this time, another migrant from the North began selling chả bò (beef patty), chả lụa, and chả bì (pork skin patty) sandwiches from a basket on a mobylette, and a stand in Gia Định Province (present-day Phú Nhuận District) began selling phá lấu sandwiches. Vietnamese communities in France also began selling bánh mì.
After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, bánh mì sandwiches became a luxury item once again. During the so-called "subsidy period", state-owned phở eateries often served bread or cold rice as a side dish, leading to the present-day practice of dipping quẩy in phở. In the 1980s, Đổi Mới market reforms led to a renaissance in bánh mì, mostly as street food.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese Americans brought bánh mì sandwiches to cities across the United States. In Northern California, Lê Văn Bá and his sons are credited with popularizing bánh mì among Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese Americans alike through their food truck services provider and their fast food chain, Lee's Sandwiches, beginning in the 1980s. Sometimes bánh mì was likened to local sandwiches. In New Orleans, a "Vietnamese po' boy" recipe won the 2009 award for best po' boy at the annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival. A restaurant in Philadelphia also sells a similar sandwich, marketed as a "Vietnamese hoagie".
A bánh mì sandwich typically consists of one or more meats, accompanying vegetables, and condiments. Common fillings include steamed, pan-roasted or oven-roasted seasoned pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork, grilled pork patties, spreadable pork liver pâté, pork floss, grilled chicken, chicken floss, canned sardines in tomato sauce, soft pork meatballs in tomato sauce (xíu mại), head cheese, mock duck, and tofu. Accompanying vegetables typically include fresh cucumber slices, cilantro (leaves of the coriander plant) and pickled carrots and white radishes in shredded form. Common condiments include spicy chili sauce, sliced chilis, Maggi seasoning sauce, mayonnaise, and Laughing Cow cheese.
The most popular variety of Vietnamese sandwich is bánh mì thịt, thịt meaning "meat". Bánh mì thịt nguội (also known as bánh mì pâté chả thịt, bánh mì đặc biệt, or "special combo") is made with various Vietnamese cold cuts, such as sliced pork or pork belly, chả lụa (pork sausage), and head cheese, along with the liver pâté and vegetables like carrot or cucumbers.
Other varieties include:
Bánh mì xíu mại (minced pork meatball sandwich)
In regions of the United States with significant populations of Vietnamese Americans, numerous bakeries and fast food restaurants specialize in bánh mì. Lee's Sandwiches, a fast food chain with locations in several states, specializes in Vietnamese sandwiches served on French baguettes (or traditional bánh mì at some locations) as well as Western-style sandwiches served on croissants. In New Orleans, Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery is known for the bánh mì bread that it distributes to restaurants throughout the city. After 1975, Ba Lẹ owner Võ Văn Lẹ fled to the United States to found (along with Lâm Quốc Thanh) Bánh mì Ba Lê. The Eden Center shopping center in Northern Virginia has several well-known bakeries specializing in bánh mì.
Mainstream U.S. fast food companies have also attempted to incorporate bánh mì and other Vietnamese dishes into their portfolios. Yum! Brands operates a chain of bánh mì cafés called Bánh Shop. The former Chipotle-owned ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen chain briefly sold bánh mì.
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