Ode to Bánh mì

I had a very serious post planned for today, opening sentences poised, and paragraphs half-written, then someone told me it was National Sandwich Day, and my mouth started salivating.  Like one of Pavlov’s subjects, the word sandwich in my mind is irrevocably tied to Bánh mì which is a Vietnamese sandwich.  Now I know that a lot of these National Day of Whatever have been started for purely commercial reasons, but for a person who loves food and eating as much as I do, any excuse to eat one of these is good enough for me.  

Bánh mì thịt heo nướng with cilantro, peanuts, large cucumber slices, juillienned pickles carrots and daikon radish, and jalapenos.

Bánh mì thịt heo nướng with cilantro, peanuts, large cucumber slices, julienned pickled carrots and daikon radish, and jalapenos.

It wasn’t always like this.  In the small town outside of Detroit where I grew up, Vietnamese food was made only by people related to me. At home. And we were not a family who went out to eat at restaurants except for very special occasions, and then to a Szechuan place about 20 minutes away in Garden City.  The owner spoke Korean. My dad would start conversing with him, and ask for the special menu, meaning the dishes that weren’t found anywhere on the plastic printed menus with tiny red pepper symbols next to them.  Pretty soon all manner of delicious foods were paraded out and placed on the table, from fried mandu (dumplings deep-fried to a perfect crispy texture, with a slightly chewy inside layer, with seasoned meat inside, just hot enough to make you inhale sharply through pursed lips, but not hot enough to burn your tongue) to seafood dishes brimming with crab, sea cucumber, shrimp, and artistically cut, slightly crisp vegetables swimming in an oyster sauce. Delicately seasoned broths with crackling bits of rice, browned just to the point of crispiness were an entree and not part of the first course. And, at the end of the meal, my dad would not even raise an eyebrow at the bill, always leaving the owner a generous tip, which would then make my mother’s eyebrows shoot up alarmingly.

I don’t mean to say that we were deprived, as my mother has a knack for tasting a dish, and being able to replicate it, and most of us would prefer to have a home-cooked meal by her over any restaurant meal. But because of this, I grew up fairly unexposed to restaurant Vietnamese food, which is a little different from your home-cooked meals.  The only way to get these was in Windsor, Ontario, which in the pre-9/11 days, was a 20 minute drive across the Ambassador Bridge to University Street.  It felt like a foreign country, the sights and smells just like the Asian grocery store, but multiplied a hundred-fold.

This was where I first saw the classic dangling barbecued red ducks, held up ignominiously by their clawed feet.  We’d go into a number of different shops, through some algorithm in my mother’s head on who had the best prices for whatever she had in her mental list.  I never saw my mother write out a to-do list or shopping list, and constantly wish I had her memory. She mourns the fact that she has trouble remembering things now as she used to know by heart all the phone numbers for all the telephone exchanges for the military base where she met my father. I tell her her memory has subsided to normal human level now.

One of the visits was always to the herbalist, and the acrid, stinging scent brings back instant memories of the concoction she must have spent precious money on to try to fatten me up. The dark brown, murky liquid with various roots and leaves in it was brewed on the kitchen stove, then ladled into what looked to me like an impossibly large cup. A small piece of hard candy was laid next to it, as incentive to finish the entire thing, preferably without gagging or retching. The house would be permeated with the smell, and my brothers would watch me as I sat at the kitchen table, face resting on fisted hands, sympathetic but staying far enough away that they wouldn’t be noticed and possibly made to drink it, too. That was in the days when I was in such a hurry to get back to my books that food wasn’t such a priority to me, and I was, as my mother called it, “a toothpick”.

It didn't work, unless there is a delayed effect 25 years later.

It didn’t work, unless there is a delayed effect occurring 25 years later.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’ve learned since then how delicious food can be.  Part of that appreciation started with the Bánh mì sandwich.  The kind my mother always bought was what is known as either bánh mì thịt nguội, or bánh mì đặc biệt.  Bánh mì is a general term for all bread in Vietnamese, however, it is also synonymous with the sandwich, which is made from a French baguette made usually with wheat and rice flour (though I’m not able to taste much difference between those with rice flour and without). It is one good by-product of the French colonial times in Vietnam.  Thịt means meat and nguội means cooled or cold.  This is also sometimes known as bánh mì đặc biệt meaning a special sandwich, which seems more than appropriate to me.  It’s filled with Vietnamese cold cuts which may include what we called Vietnamese bologna growing up or chả lụa (pork sausage), head cheese (more delicious than the name sounds, trust me), and sliced pork roasted with the classic red seasoning, and sometimes liver pâté. Though delicious, the meat wasn’t the best part of the sandwich, as it could not be complete without pickled carrots and daikon radish, julienned fresh cucumbers and cilantro. A buttery mayonnaise added some moisture and helped to bind all the ingredients together.

Fixings for

Fixings for bánh mì thịt nguội

Thrown in like little red hand grenades of spiciness were the deadly red Thai chilies, sliced to such minuscule portions that they were nearly impossible to ferret out completely, inevitably leading to abandoning the sandwich briefly for several glasses of water, followed by careful eyeing of the sandwich yet again, before taking the next tentative bites.  Because it is so delicious, and you think you’ve been meticulous about catching all the peppers, a few more bites will lead to thinking you are safe, and then another ninja chili will cause your tongue or lips to blossom in pain, and the whole process will begin again. These were a special treat, and each of us would get one small baguette for our own.  

These may look like ordinary Thai chili peppers to you, but be forewarned, they are stealthy and wicked.

These may look like ordinary Thai chili peppers to you, but be forewarned, they are stealthy and wicked.

I thought perhaps at first that it was the novelty and scarcity of the sandwich which has also been called a Vietnamese po’boy or hoagie, which was the attraction.  As I got older and got a chance to try many other kinds of sandwiches including reubens, Cubanos, Philly steak hoagies, and calzones among others (can you tell I have no issues with gluten sensitivity?), the novelty of bánh mì wore off. Or so I thought.

Then when I was in the process of moving to this high desert place we now call home, I made a phone call to the physician assistant program here, in the hopes that they might have an opening so that I could continue to be involved in educating PA students as I had in Detroit.  The PA program director told me that she did not, but would be happy to take my name, and C.V. in the event that an opening came available. As I spelled out my name for her, the tone of her voice changed from polite interest to animated questioning.

“Are you Vietnamese?” she asked.

“Yes, well, half anyway,” I replied.

“Can you speak Vietnamese?”, she asked, her voice becoming more excited.

“Um, yes?” But what does that have to do with teaching PA students I wondered to myself.

“Did you know there is a very large Vietnamese population here? And some of our students are Vietnamese.”

“No, I assumed it was mostly Spanish and Native American,” I responded, wonder dawning in my voice.

In the end, I got to teach here, and not only that I discovered the proximity of not one, but several Vietnamese sandwich shops, Vietnamese restaurants, and even a Vietnamese church. I had gone from being related to the only Vietnamese people I knew (other than those I met in college), to a city filled with them, completely on accident.

And so I did the only thing I could do.  I went to every Vietnamese place I could find to try the bánh mì (and the phở, but that’s another blog post). Purely for research purposes, of course. I discovered bánh mì thịt heo nướng, what I now call the gateway bánh mì, filled with seasoned roast pork, a sandwich no one I’ve ever introduced to has ever disliked. And, like so many other things, I’ve discovered that there are many right ways to make a bánh mìall of them informed by personal choice, with variations in bread which is normally baked on site, fillings, types of vegetables included, consistency of mayonnaise (which is definitely not Hellman’s) and chilis used. Here in the Southwest, those red ninja-stealth chilis have been replaced by jalapenos, which when seeded and sliced, often look just like the much more innocuous green pepper.

Fresh, they could be green peppers in your sandwich. Except green peppers don't make your lips feel like they want to fall off.

Fresh, they could be green peppers in your sandwich. Except green peppers don’t make your lips feel like they want to fall off.

Same effect, different chili, but still delicious.  It turns out I was wrong. I’m pretty partial to bánh mì, even if I can have one every day.

Not that I do.

Or have done.

Not yet, anyway.

Though I'm not a tshirt collecting person, I would wear this.

Though I’m not a tshirt collecting person, I would wear this.

128 thoughts on “Ode to Bánh mì

  1. Pingback: Recommended reading | Down the Road

      • I’d love to go back to Hawaii someday! The manapua was delicious! Shave ice, pineapple and the lilikoi were also so tasty. Hmm, apparently I experience the world through my stomach, lol. I like your take on deviled eggs. It turns them into tiny works of art. I’ve never tried the Trader Joe chicken salad, so had never seen it with cashews. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My mouth is watering just reading your excellent post! I live in England so I can’t check out any of the places you mention, but in Liverpool we have a really mixed population so I’m sure there will be several Vietnamese shops where I can search for this delicious sandwich. Thank you for an excellent article!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Wow! Your mum must have been a really good cook for being able to replicate dishes so well.

    As an Indian, we all love our breads but I personally prefer rice. I hope when I grow up in the next few years, I will be able to cook as well as my mum and grandmum.

    They are two women that inspire me a lot.

    Take care!


    Liked by 4 people

  4. My exposure to Bahn mi is from the Wich Wich Sandwich shop, where they change the monthly featured “R&D” sandwich. I think I had that sandwich, 7 times during that month. I can only hope I find a sandwich shop in Florida, that can have a more authentic Bahn Mi. I am poor with spicy foods, so I might skip the holy hand grenade of the Thai chill :P.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Pingback: Be Calm And Comment On |

  6. Really enjoyed reading your post 🙂 i have stayed in deteoit area and searched for the banh mi which was accessible but have now settled in wisconsin where i have found a source. I hope it recieves the glamor it deserves in the culinary world one day. Am mostly prefer vegetarian although i do eat meat. This is one sandwich which can also turn out a treat for vegetarians and you nailed it that it is because of those pickled carrots and radishes 🙂 i will also look forwarf to your pho post 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

    • There is a lovely bánh mì cookbook out there, but I’ve not had a chance yet to try to make this. I’m glad you found a place in Wisconsin. I see you were paying attention, and will make sure to write a post about Phở which may be my most favorite soup ever.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great will watch out for it. I have made banh mi a couple of times and had just posted pics and blogged about the madison cart a week back so i think its just the topic of the season 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

    • As someone who gets hungry at all times of the day, I don’t find 3 am a surprising time to have one of these. Actually, I can’t think of a bad time, lol. Thanks for taking the time to read my writing!

      Liked by 2 people

    • My parents have been spending the winters in California for the past couple years, and I’ve finally had the chance to experience California sunshine, so the combination of that and increased availability of bánh mì has to be fabulous. I’m so glad you liked my post. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Well done on your Fresh Pressed exposure! I didn’t eat much Vietnamese while I was in your country, and that is my loss. I still have sleepless nights when in my minds eye I see such a beautiful green countryside laid to waste with agent orange and saturation bombing. Environmental terrorism at its worst at the hands of my countrymen and I. How I would love to visit Vietnam today. You touch on so many things here on your site, and shed light on them all very, very well. I am glad I “met” you, so to speak, and will enjoy having this inspiring place on my reading list. Be well!

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Pingback: Ode to Bánh mì | MAO

  9. I’m a Vietnamese and I want to recommend you some kinds of bánh mì that we love to eat. You should try Bánh mì heo quay, Bánh mì chả cá, Bánh mì nem nướng. They are really delicious. Your post really good and helpful for many readers

    Liked by 5 people

    • I’m half-Vietnamese, but grew up with my bà ngoại, so luckily I can speak some Vietnamese. Thank you for the recommendations, and I’m glad you liked my post. I’ll be sure to try all of your suggestions. 😉

      Liked by 3 people

    • The cheapest I’ve seen it here is at a little sandwich shop run by a sweet little grandmotherly lady for $3.95, so that is cheap! Next time I’m in Toronto, I’ll have to check it out. I know what you mean about college. I used to buy Campbell’s tomato soup 3 cans for $1, a loaf of bread for 99 cents, and some cheese and would live off that in college.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love banh mi! It takes me back to when my mother used to take my to the city market every weekend… Though, I never understood why she couldn’t just make it – being first generation Laotian and all… Then I realized the perfect piece of this sandwich is actually the BREAD, that perfect this simple and flavorful food. Great read, excellent writing!

    Liked by 4 people

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