Vietnamese banh mi and its spectacular journey to the world. (Part 1)15 May 2018
When mentioning Vietnamese cuisine, people often remember pho or bun bo (beef with vermicelli). However, by stealth, banh mi has gradually found a place in people’s heart all around the globe.
Nothing reflects the essence of a country’s cuisine more accurately than its street food. Why else would Gordon Ramsay, the famous chef who only works in A-class restaurants, be willing to sail on a boat in Mekong Delta just to learn how to make a bowl of vermicelli? It is these kinds of street foods that make up the spirit and rhythm of a country.
Banh mi - its ups and downs with Saigon in the past.
In 1859, bread made from wheat flour was introduced by French troops into Gia Dinh (Ho Chi Minh City’s former name). The bread then was still very western, dense dough and the crust was not crispy. It was not until the authorities decided to provide a standard diet consisting of bread and milk to elementary schools, that Vietnamese bread changed from the original French recipe. The baguette was usually baked with wood, and only about 7 - 10 loaves for each batch were made, which was not enough for the schools. In 1970, tall brick ovens were imported from Japan allowing us to bake dozens of breads at once. This type of oven is still used to bake breads today.
Unlike an open fir, the brick oven and coal fuel retains moisture when baking. With high heat and steam, the bread becomes hollow, while the crust remains crunchy. This is also the feature that differentiates Vietnamese banh mi from western baguettes. Saigon people like this because it is not doughy like French baguette. In the past, Saigon was not only about trendy fashion and classic cars but also about banh mi being sold everywhere: from a bicycle, trolley or just in a small basket from a stall inside a house.
However, Vietnamese style banh mi was really invented when the Hoa Ma restaurant appeared.
Before the small shop at the corner of Cao Thang - Nguyen Dinh Chieu street was established, Vietnamese banh mi was still eaten in the western style: by itself, with butter or with soup. Before moving to Saigon, Mr Hoa and Mrs Tinh — the restaurant’s founders — used to work in a bakery shop in Hanoi. People were served banh mi with various kinds of ham or to customers’ orders. Realising how time consuming it was, Mr Hoa and Mrs Tinh decided to stuff banh mi with many different fillings for people who didn’t have to enough time to dine in.
“The old Banh Mi Hoa Ma restaurant.”
Having learned how to make banh mi like Mr. Hoa, other shops and restaurant began to tailor banh mi to please their customers: hollow and with a lighter consistency, a thicker crust and a smaller size for take-away; butter was replaced with margarine. Banh mi now not only consists of hams and pate but also with giò lụa (Vietnamese sausage) and pickles - traditional Vietnamese side dishes. From a small banh mi stall named Hoa Ma in Saigon, banh mi continues has spread across Vietnam and has taken the world by storm.