The History and Origins of Banh Mi

Vietnamese bánh mì offers a wealth of textures. Crispy bread! Fatty mayo and meats! Crunchy pickles! Hot chilies! Refreshing cucumber and herbs! …Vietnamese cuisine blends East Asia with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the West. Bánh mì is the perfect hybrid. – Andrea Nguyen, Food Writer and Cook Book Author

In Vietnam, ‘Bánh mì‘ when translated literally refers only to ‘bread’, or ‘wheat cake’. The pork, paté, and pickles combination now familiar to the West is known as a bánh mì thịt ngoui, ‘bread, meat and cold cuts’, often referred to as the bánh mì đặc biệt, ‘the special’.

The French arrived in Vietnam initially as missionaries in the seventeenth century but initiated a 30-year conquest of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 1859, eventually forming the federation of Indochina in 1887. The French justified their colonisation efforts as a a ‘civilising mission’ ( mission civilisatrice’) an idea to introduce modern political ideas, social reforms, industrial methods and new technologies to undeveloped nations. In reality, French colonialism was chiefly driven interested in acquiring land, exploiting labour and making profit.

​The French influence on Vietnamese culture is very strong and even today, Ho Chi Minh retains the faded look of a European city, its many Western-style buildings dating from the period of French colonial rule. The French influence on food is very apparent these days however initially food was used as a delineation to justify the colonial hierachy and emphasise the assumed superiority over the Vietnamese.

The unofficial policy was that white people, even poor white people, should not have to eat “native” food. In particular, the colonial state wanted white children to look healthy and well-fed in order to maintain white prestige.

For a time the colonists maintained a European diet while disapproving of any French who ate Vietnamese food, and any Vietnamese who ate French food.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the French colonial government also forced Germans to leave Indochina. The two largest import companies in Indochina (Speidel & Co. and F. Engler & Co.,), being German-owned, were seized by the French colonial authorities. The expulsion of German managers and continued government harassment (via customs/regulatory interference) led to closure of these companies and left warehouses full of European perishables. In an effort to liquidate stocks and relieve the overflowing supply, the government turned to the local Vietnamese market to source new customers. Advertisements were specially tailored for the Vietnamese market and the working classes were now able to afford pate, cold meats, bread and Seasoning Sauce (a Swiss -made savoury flavor enhancer) all of which became important components of the modern bánh mì.

Seasoning Sauce. An important ingredient in banh mi
Using the skills and recipes learnt from the French, the Vietnamese started to produce their own processed meats including local Vietnamese ingredients. The following are cold cuts in typically used in ​bánh mì thịt ngoui.
Chả lụa, a cooked pork roll lightly seasoned with fish sauce, and traditionally steamed or boiled in a banana leafChả lụa, a cooked pork roll lightly seasoned with fish sauce, and traditionally steamed or boiled in a banana leaf
Thịt nguội is a Vietnamese salami containing cured pork layered with fatThịt nguội is a Vietnamese salami containing cured pork layered with fat
Giò thủ cold cut made from a pig’s head but can also be made with calf or sheep. Congealed together by the natural gelatin of the head organs, Giò thủ is served as a cold cut and also luncheon meatGiò thủ cold cut made from a pig’s head but can also be made with calf or sheep. Congealed together by the natural gelatin of the head organs, Giò thủ is served as a cold cut and also luncheon meat
​Following World War I, bread became more common in the Vietnamese diet. The bánh mì is actually fluffier than French baguettes, due to the use of dough enhancers, (commonly ascorbic acid), which allowed consistent proofing in the face of high humidity and fluctuating temperatures.

there are these additives in the flour and the dough that Vietnamese bakers learned to use over the years because they needed that dough to rise in tropical humidity – Andrea Nguyen

Butter also was generally replaced with mayonnaise, a cheaper and more stable ingredient in Vietnam’s searing heat.
The precursor of the banh mi is a French dish “casse-croute”, a traditional French baguette served with a plate of cold cuts, pate, ham, cheese and butter. This evolved into the Vietnamese cát-cụt, and it was in Vietnamese cát-cụt shops that the modern bánh mì developed in the 1950’s. In order to increase the affordability, the size of the baguette was reduced to around 20 centimeters and the amount of meat was lessened, adding vegetables instead. “In the south, they lived large,” says Andrea Nguyen, “so a lot of stuff was added, like fresh herbs, vegetables, and pickles.” These Vietnamese ingredients, such as coriander, cucumber, and pickled carrots and daikon (đồ chua) make the banh mi the remarkable fusion dish it is today.
​Today the bánh mì has had meteoric rise thanks the popularity of food trucks, the explosion in food blogging and the endorsement of the celebrity chefs. However behind it’s current trendiness, there exists “160 years of Vietnam’s history in one single, fiery package”.
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